The Warm Heart of Africa

Sabrina O’Leary is a medical records volunteer based in Cork. She recently travelled to Malawi on her fourth medical mission with Operation Smile and recaps her experience.


Sabrina O’Leary, and young patient, Aneth, are full of smiles in Zomba, Malawi


In August of this year I had the opportunity to travel to Zomba in Malawi with Operation Smile. Malawi is known as the warm heart of Africa for very good reason. The people of Malawi are so incredibly kind and friendly, and welcomed us at every corner.

I had always wanted to volunteer, and having applied and been trained as a medical records volunteer with Operation Smile I first travelled on a medical mission to Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2013. I have since travelled to Accra in Ghana, Guadalajara in Mexico, and most recently to Zomba in Malawi.

The beginning of each mission is bedlam for medical records. We are the first port of call for every patient as they progress through the screening process – where each patient is evaluated to see if they are candidates for surgery. It’s hard to describe the feeling when those first few patients come through on the first day of the mission. Some patients have travelled a long distance and it may have taken them days to get to us, but they always have a huge smile on their faces and a warm welcome for us all, with a look of hope, fear and trepidation all mixed into one, in the hopes that they will get surgery.

I found this mission particularly difficult. It was very hard to witness the sheer poverty, which seemed to be most people’s situation in Malawi. I found this very hard to see each day as I travelled into the hospital. The problem with malnourishment in Malawi is severe, and this meant that several children were not well enough for surgery. I have never witnessed so many admissions of seriously sick children to the hospital. It was heart breaking, and there were many tears shed by both volunteers and patients when people were turned away. Thankfully, Operation Smile’s Nutrition Programme in Malawi helped many of these patients by training families in feeding techniques, so that next time they will be healthy enough to receive surgery. They travelled home with the hope that they can return and will make the surgery schedules on the next Operation Smile mission.

On every mission, there is always one patient who stands out. On day 3 of surgery week we met the beautiful Aneth, who travelled with her mother to Zomba. Although they had planned to make it to Zomba in time for the screening days, they had missed a number of bus connections so didn’t arrive until surgery had already started. As all the medical volunteers were busy with surgery, I had the opportunity to spend some time with Aneth. Her mother told us “Aneth does not like strangers” - well little Aneth took to us as we played with her and was full of smiles! Her mother told us the people in their village laugh at her because she has a cleft lip. It boggles my mind how people can be so cruel to a beautiful child. Aneth’s mother was fearful they were too late for surgery, however the medical team were able to fit her in, and Aneth was placed on the surgery schedule for her new smile.

When I tell people I am volunteering on a mission, everyone is very supportive and always sending me off with well wishes, however I can honestly say I gain more than I give by volunteering with Operation Smile. I find the experience of volunteering is hard to explain. We are a team of people committed to helping people, each one helping everyone out to get as many patients through surgery as possible. It is an extremely emotional experience, from tears of sadness for those unable to receive surgery, to joy for those who do. Myriad emotions are felt throughout the mission. It is possibly the most humbling experience and yet inspiring to meet these patients who always have a smile for us. One thing is for certain it makes me appreciate more and be more thankful for what I have here at home.

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“Every child that has a facial deformity is our responsibility. If we don’t take care of that child, there’s no guarantee that anyone else will.”

- Kathy Magee, Operation Smile Co-founder and President