There are moments that you never forget, those moments that could be called ‘life changing’. One of those times for me was my mission trip with Smile Network. This is a humanitarian organization that provides life-altering reconstructive surgeries and related healthcare services to impoverished children and adults in developing nations. When you make a donation for a dollar, ten dollars, five hundred dollars or more, you are giving someone in need the priceless gift of dignity. In fact, I learned that 45 minutes and $500.00 changes a life forever.
So here is my story. After a major health scare and recovery, I was feeling pretty lucky, blessed. So I wanted to give back. Turns out my good friend and college roommate, Dawn, felt the same way. We went to a meeting to find out more about the organization and the work they were doing in Peru with many children from the Ketchwa tribe. Wow! Here is what we signed up for . . .
We were going to be gone from our families and the basic comforts of home for 17 days. The first few days in Peru we acclimated to the elevation in the beautiful town of Cusco. Beautiful people. Then, it was off to the classic Inca Trail where we would be bonding with our surgical team by hiking together for five days and four nights. We hiked about eight hours each day and summited at ‘Dead Woman’s Pass’ at around 13,000 feet above sea level.
The Inca Trail is really three overlapping trails: Mollepata, Classic, and One Day. Mollepata is the longest of the three routes, with the highest mountain pass, and intersects with the Classic route before crossing Warmiwañusqa (‘dead woman’). Located in the Andes mountain range, the trail passes through several types of Andean environments including cloud forest and alpine tundra. Settlements, tunnels, and many Incan ruins are located along the trail before ending at the Sun Gate on Machu Picchu mountain.
We trekked with moms, dads, teenagers, photographers, porters and even a Peruvian shaman, Roni. There were lots of laughs, really bad camp food, twisted ankles, altitude sickness and NO BATHROOMS! The trail tested our physical fitness, mental toughness, even our modesty. But, man-oh-man, was it ever life changing. I was truly present for every moment. Nothing but the trail and your walking stick for days. The scenery was breath taking, but the moment that we got to the Sun Gate – the end of the trail – Machu Picchu was beyond words. We were exhausted, dirty, hungry and SOOOO awe inspired to see in person what we have only seen in pictures. I mean when was the last time you did something for the very first time? Machu Picchu is enormous!!! We spent hours there soaking it all in and then it was off for showers and food!
But after all that, the REAL adventure was about to start. We were there for a medical mission and it was time to start the process, our higher purpose.
Day 1 of the mission was where we started the screening process. Some families had walked for days to just get the chance to see one of the mission doctors in hopes that their child’s face could be repaired and life changed. There were hundreds that came in to be screened, and less than 75 that would get this life changing surgery. I have to say, much of that day was heartbreaking, having to turn away families and knowing what they had gone through just to get there, much less what their lives were like back home. Gut wrenching really. The doctors are made up of volunteers from all over the world; pediatricians, plastic surgeons, nurses, anesthesiologists, all here ‘on vacation’ working 15 hour days to give the less fortunate in this world another chance.
Days 2-4: Surgeries began and recoveries continued. Most of the families didn’t speak English or Spanish but rather a Ketchwa dialect that required translators to help them discuss the surgery and what to expect. Mostly for me, it was telling moms that it was going to be okay by dishing out a lot of hugs and prayers. It’s so surreal – a mother handing over their child and their trust to you while they really can’t begin to understand what is happening. I became a ‘godmother’ to many of the babies that we were able to help. I actually even got to assist in the surgeries, becoming sort of a ‘scrub nurse’, in what are not modern surgery centers, but more like M.A.S.H. units. Pictures tell it best. Truly, in 45 minutes, these doctors and nurses changed lives forever, mine too.
This experience has changed the way I think about the world and my life . . . forever.