Update from the Field: Operation Smile

Operation Smile in Guwahati, India

July 15, 2014: Billy Tran ’17

Greetings from India , UVM College of Medicine. Billy Tran here, checking in from Guwahati. I’m here with Erin [Pichiotino] and Bekah [Wieland] from the class of 2017 and we’re helping out with Operation Smile. OpSmile is an international organization committed to treating patients with cleft palates and/or lips. The center in Guwahati is one of the organization’s permanent locations and their model site for sustained center. Guwahati is a city in the state of Assam, which is in northeast India. If you look at a map, it’s the part of India sticking out to the right. The people here are quite independent-minded, have strong influences from Asian culture, speak their own language, and live in a ridiculously lush and beautiful state. With that being said, all the development and urban areas of Assam is very much a developing world, like much of India.

Seeing medicine here is totally a shock. The conditions that the medicine community faces here is daunting, at least in my western tinted eyes. Space is limited; the surgeons operate in a single room with up to three other surgeries going on at the same time. Animals wander the lower levels of the hospital. And most striking is the infrastructure problems. Almost daily, we lost power in the hospital. The back-up generators almost always repowers everything within a couple seconds, but it’s something surgeons must contend with while operating on patients.

Knowing of these limitations, the real shock is the efficiency and success enjoyed by the surgeons and the whole OpSmile program. The plastic surgeons working here perform two to five surgeries a day. They do procedures in two hours that would take five-plus hours in the states. And they’ve done this without a single mortality in the three-plus years of the center’s existence. The staff here is a combination of local physicians and nurses, and international fellows and volunteering surgeons. The outreach programs at OpSmile is just as impressive. Reaching patients within the city is easy enough, but the vast majority of the population are spread throughout the rural areas of Assam. They make weekly trips out to meetings with community health workers in areas one to seven hours away. They make informational presentations and provide rudimentary training to identify cleft lips/palates. The health workers go out and do an initial screening, gather possible patients, who are then screened by people from OpSmile. Due to the dire need to work every day, all patients are provided transportation, food and housing during their surgical stay.

In addition to this medical experience, we’ve been able to go out into the country and enjoy the gorgeous beauty of the northeast India. We recently went to the city of Shilong, known as the rainiest place on earth apparently, and hiked into a valley nearby to see living root bridges and waterfalls. Also got a chance to see the Bangladesh from the top of the mountain range. Beautiful. Peace out and see y’all later!

Location: Guwahati, Assam, India
Length of Stay: 3 weeks
Name of Program: Operation Smile


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