St. Andrews students go on Operation Smile medical mission

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November is a special month for students and staff at St. Andrews, Green Valley. Apart from being the time for the school’s Halloween party and Loy Krathong festival, it is also the time when a group of IB students get the opportunity to travel to the northern provinces in Thailand to help change the lives of many children who have single cleft lip, bilateral cleft lip, cleft palate, or huge areas of scar tissue from burns and skin grafts; to play with them and calm them down before they undergo surgery. This opportunity we were given is otherwise known as “Operation Smile”.

The journey began on the 1st of November, where we travelled by plane to Mae Sot – a district that shares a border with Burma to the west. After arriving at the hotel, we were warmly greeted by our group leader, Angie, who introduced us to people from other schools that came to join the medical mission. We were then split into groups to organize a “Smile Bag” for the patients and their family – containing basic toiletries. Once the task was completed, each group was to take a batch of smile bags up to their room, ready to give it out at the hospital the following morning.

The idea of making balloon animals worked well.The idea of making balloon animals worked well.

The second day was when things got hectic. When we arrived at the hospital, there were so many people that it seemed impossible to even walk – 160 people (most of which were children) went through the process of screening. It soon became clear that the majority of people there were not able to speak Thai, so our body language and the way we interacted with them became very important in reducing the stress they were feeling.

Once we managed to slide our way through the massive crowd, we put our batch of “Smile Bags” to one side and decided to take the role of entertaining the children by making balloon animals and helping them color in books. The idea of making balloon animals worked well initially, and many of us managed to master such sophisticated skills through the teaching of Ms. Randall.

The third day was when some of the operations started to take place, and we were responsible for decorating the ward where the children and their families would stay. We decided to make long chain of colorful hoops that could be hung between the corners of the room. We then got the chance to play around with the children who were waiting for their operations. Different people played different games with the children, but the most popular game was passing balloons around. It was fascinating to see how amused the children were with balloons, but more importantly, how these activities seemed to relieve all the anxieties and pressure that the children (and their parents) may have been feeling at the time.

The final day at Mae Sot was arguably one of the most emotional days out of the entire trip. This is when we went up to the operating rooms to see the children (who we have been playing with for the past 2 days) go through their life changing operations. It was not solely that the operations were emotionally overwhelming, but we realized soon enough that some of these children did not have their parents with them. Some of these children had to wait for their operation alone, and to make matters worse, many of them did not speak or understand Thai. So the fact that these children recognized us and smiled immediately when they saw our face just shows the warm connection and friendship we had established with them.

Mo, a student from year 12, gave us some insight into her emotions on the fourth day at the Operation Smile medical mission: “I have to admit that the language barrier made it difficult for me to interact with the children on the first day. But as the days went by, and after I got to spend more time with them, I realized that the barrier was no longer there. All the kids there were beautiful, polite and very energetic. My most memorable moment, or the most memorable child I should say, would be a young girl who was obsessed with stickers. I did not get a chance to ask for her name, but I decided it would be suitable to call her ‘little sticker girl’. You may think that she simply likes to collect stickers that we gave out, but that is just part of her obsession. Her main mission was to go around and literally stick stickers all over you! And every time she did so, a huge smile could be seen on her face, followed by her heart-warming giggle. I still have the stickers that she chose to stick on the back of my phone. Meeting her made me realize the importance of the medical mission, as the operation she would soon get would allow her to be joyful, lively and adorable for the rest of her life, just like the way she is now.”

Kao, a student from Year 13, also shared his thoughts on the final day: “It was unbelievable. I came out of the dressing room and saw this young boy sitting all alone. As I walked closer to him, I realized that this was not just any boy. His name was ‘Traiwan’. I spent the majority of the previous 2 days playing with him, playing anything and everything we manage to get hold of. The most memorable moment would be his passion for dinosaurs and how he would challenge everyone (including me) to battle against his dinosaur toy. Of course, I didn’t want to unleash my elite skill of dinosaur battling, and let him beat me 23 times… Nevertheless, that moment when we saw each other, it was like seeing a friend from childhood. He gave me an exuberant smile and then we spent the rest of his waiting time watching Ben 10. Even though we did not interact much, the fact that he did not look as scared and concerned gave me a feeling of overwhelming relief and joy.”

Excuse the use of a cliché, but words simply can’t describe the emotional roller-coaster all of us went through. It was life changing for us as much as it is for the children. We truly hope that this medical mission would continue for many years to come, and that more and more schools would get their students and staff involved in it.