Operation Smile Takes Aid to Others

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By Nancy Deutsch, RN, contributor

Cindi Raglin, RN, is a teacher, but she is also a student. When the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) nurse travels for Operation Smile as part of the Critical Nursing Skills Training Program—a new three-day intensive program designed to give nurses in other countries a standard level of nursing instruction regarding operative care of cleft lip and palate surgery on youngsters—the nurse is primarily a teacher.

During a recent trip to the Philippines, Raglin found herself in front of 200 nurses, going over sterile technique, and how to watch for complications, such as malignant hypothermia.

“What we taught were the skills we expect all nurses to do,” Raglin explained. Nurses with different levels of skill attended the session, so the knowledge base varied a great deal, she said, but every nurse shared the same level of energy and commitment. “None of the nurses were shy. We had a lot of participation.”

But each time she goes to a different country, Raglin has to hone her teaching, based on what she learns about the particular country she is visiting. She is constantly learning. “We find in different countries, nurses play different roles. In Russia, they (nurses) don’t even own stethoscopes,” she explained.

Raglin also feels she learns from the volunteer nurses in other countries and part of Operation Smile. “It’s amazing what you can learn from each other.”

Raglin, who has a regular day job as a nurse in NICU at the Children's Hospital of The King's Daughters in Norfolk, Virgina, relies on her 30 years of nursing and 30 missions taken for Operation Smile to help her train other nurses as part of the Critical Nursing Skills Training.

A volunteer, Raglin uses her vacation time or takes unpaid leave to travel for Operation Smile, something she has done since 1998. “It’s worth it,” she says. “I love children. I feel I owe the world.”

When not traveling to help operate on youngsters or to train nurses as part of the new program, Raglin helps Operation Smile to find new staff members by looking over applications. She is a member of Operation Smile’s Nursing Council.

Lisa D. Jones, Operation Smile’s public relations coordinator, says Operation Smile has about 2,000 nurse volunteers around the world, and “we get applications every day.”

When leading a nursing team to operate as part of her more regular traveling for Operation Smile, Raglin will oversee the nurses involved in 30 to 35 operations a day. When she arrives in another country, there are usually 300 to 700 children waiting to be screened, she said.

Not being able to help each and every child is the hardest part of the job for Linda Highfield, a perioperative nurse at Riverside Outpatient Surgery Center in Columbus, Ohio, and another volunteer with Operation Smile “We can never do surgery on all the ones we see.”

Highfield has worked for Operation Smile for 15 years, and she can easily remember the first time she was sent on a mission and “saw the hordes of children and their faces- they’re all broken.”

The children are usually very excited because for many it’s the first time they have seen another child with the same facial deformities, she said.

Highfield has been to most of Operation Smile’s partner countries, including Vietnam and Nicaragua, and is now also part of the Clinical Nursing Skills Training Program.

She, Raglin, and one other nurse, Lucia Mauer of Seattle, Washington, will also help to develop the second part of that program, expected to be launched in a year and a half, which will give nurses in other countries more in-depth physiology of cleft problems, and also offer a pediatric life support course.

Operation Smile really values these experienced nurses, says Dr. Luis Bermudez, Operation Smile’s senior manager for education, and a resident of Colombia. “There is no degree in nursing about clefts,” he points out. “It’s a lot of work and it’s a lot of commitment.”

Many of the volunteers balance time with other commitment, including full-time jobs, he says. “It’s really difficult for them to get time off.”

This year alone, volunteers of Operation Smile plan to operate on 5000 patients around the world, he said.

Highfield says that she can’t imagine what she would be like had she not volunteered for Operation Smile. “I’m a whole different person from when I started,” she says. “I have talents I’ve enjoyed sharing. I’m driven.”

At 60, Highfield plans to continue to work with the program for as long as possible. “Operation Smile is my passion.”

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