Our final day is over and Despina and I are beyond grateful for this experience. I cried like a baby when we left the shelter knowing that I may never see these children again and that our departure saddened them even more! Yet... I was so happy for what Operation Smile could do for them. Every one of them will forever be in my thoughts and prayers. I wish I could bring them all home with me!
This afternoon I remembered that I have a job! It's so funny that I didn't think about it once! I would say back to the real world but what I've experienced here IS the real world. All of us have so much in our lives and I am thankful for all of it and for my incredible friends and family.. But... The easiest thing we can do is be kind. There is always someone that needs our help, our kindness and even our smile. I am certain that this will leave a lasting impression on Despina and her already kind heart will only grow bigger.
The latter part of our day and evening was spent laughing and experiencing Panama with our team. They were beyond kind to us and I cannot wait to see them all again. The students were amazing and I am so impressed by their willingness to give and their leadership. They had a great time with Despina and treated her like a little sister. I am so proud of all of them and want them to come to the U.S.
Despina will miss them so much!
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She always watched everyone with curious eyes and was so shy. By the end of the week she felt comfortable running to me for a hug.
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Yilka! I could NOT beat her at memory match card game. She killed me every time. After a few games I remember thinking.., what the heck.. Am I old or something?
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This one makes me sad! I'll miss them!
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Kaela saying bye!
 
 
Our time here is coming to an end and it's absolutely incredible what this team has accomplished in 4 short days. The Doctors, nurses and volunteers have worked so hard. It's hard to think about leaving all of the new friends we have made but we have quite an experience to share. We have come to know the children in the shelter by name and we will miss their little faces. There is no doubt they will miss us too. They will start to go home to their everyday lives but with a better chance of normalcy, nutrition and happiness. The students have made memories for them they will never forget. I couldn't be more proud of Despina and the high school students. They went to bed every night after 11 and woke every morning by 6 yet they kept on with smiles, energy and so much kindness. Despina no longer hangs out with me here! She stays with the students from morning to night! Today we will see the last of the patients coming back to the shelter after surgery. These will be the older children and even adults. I wish we could come every year to see them progress.
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As promised... Yionni Becker!
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This is Alejandra! She is such a firecracker! She's wearing one of the gowns we brought.
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Alexandra and Despina after a long day!
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Some of the girls with Despina with the sign they made for the team final party.
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Children after surgery. They are back in the shelter and go home tomorrow.
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Filled with joy!
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My girl Kaela! She would stand next to the bus as we left every day and wave and blow kisses. She would anxiously await our arrival the next day and greet us with a giant smile and a tight hug!
 
 
First.... I think I speak Spanish again! It's like riding a bike! Ha Ha!

Aside from that, Despina and I were looking so forward to waking up today as we knew we were going to spend the day at the hospital. We went to the floor reserved for Operation Smile where we immediately began playing with children waiting. We then made our way to Post Op where patients were with their mothers and starting to drink fluids. It was so great to see the smile on the faces of these mothers and fathers as they tended to their little ones.
Shortly after Bill and Kathy Magee arrived with Jack and Dr. Magee tried his hardest to get them into the OR but they were adamant that they could not. We'll try again in high school! We settled for a few moments in recovery where they got the chance to see what I felt was more impactful.. The children coming right out of surgery and being reunited with their mothers for the first time with their new beautiful smile. I was so glad the kids could experience this so they could truly understand why it's so important to be involved and that what they do in their school brings these priceless moments. So so great!
Despina was able to head out for a while for a much needed break afterwards and a little relaxation with Jack. They have both been working so hard. I decided I'd go help out back in recovery. I didn't ask I just got dressed in scrubs that were in a room I saw nurses walking in and out of and went in! This is where I spent the entire day and this was by far the most rewarding experience this entire mission so far. There is a major strike happening in Panama right now with all nurses so none of them are working because of some salary issues. This turned out to be a good thing for us because it allowed us to work as nurses for the day because they really needed help. By us I mean me and a few of the high school students. Every patient that came in we quickly put blood pressure cuffs on them, attached the pulse monitor to their finger, tied bands around their arms that kept them from being able to bend them and mess with their stitches and stayed at their side to be next to them as they woke up from anesthesia. It was amazing to stand next to them and see their little tired faces. Even better was the moment we could call their mothers in. This was very emotional! These moments are what we're here for. My 2 high school students were able to go in the OR today and I could tell by their expressions and excitement in their voices that this was so fulfilling for them. I wanted to make sure they had that opportunity and today they did. We're getting sad that we only have 2 more days. This experience is more and more rewarding every day and we don't want it to end!
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The smallest things made them so happy as they waited for surgery .
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Sujata with a patient and mother in recovery.
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A mother with her daughter as she wakes up.
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Despina wearing her scrubs in recovery.
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Despina, Jack and Kathy Magee in recovery!
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Despina watching a patient and his mother reunite!
 
 
Yesterday we spent our whole day at the shelter and Despina worked hard all day playing with children. In the morning children started to return wearing their hospital gowns that the kids at Linkhorn Elementary and Trantwood Elementary made. They loved them and they made them so much happier than the plain green hospital gowns. Thank you all as you made a huge impact. Thank you also to my Bank of America team for donating so many toys for the kids. You will see below they were put to great use!
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Returning from surgery to the shelter wearing her gown!
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The hard working student team
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Despina making crowns with the kids to keep them busy
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After surgery ... She looks just beautiful!
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For Mrs. Lehner and Mrs. Wanamaker!!! Despina keeping up with school work at night!!!
 
 
First, thank you to all of the students here with our team! They helped Despina start her day with so many birthday wishes, kisses and hugs and they all sang to her in Spanish. They are all so great.
We started our day at the shelter again where many patients were already taken to the hospital nearby for surgery. The ones still in the shelter have surgery scheduled for another day this week. It's so amazing when the bus pulls up in front of the shelter and the kids instantly light up. They cannot wait for Despina and the high school students to get there. They run up and greet us immediately with hugs and smiles. We're starting to get to know many of them by name and they like to hold our hand wherever we go... Including Yionni Becker... The boy who's mom we couldn't find the first day.. How he got the last name Becker... Well that's a mystery. We always find him wandering and he's known by name. It's quite funny actually... "There's Yionni Becker".. We always say his last name because it seems so odd and funny for him. I'll post a picture of him when I take one. Such a rebel! Our hearts continue to be touched today as we bring toys out of our bag the children crowd around you. We've had 2 of them cry already because this is the first time they've ever had a toy. That's it... Just a small toy. Not an iPhone or a PS3 or a surf or skate board... A small ball or 3 crayons and a piece of paper. The Bishop of David came to the shelter today and we all... Patients, mothers, students, volunteers,... All... Held hands and prayed for the children receiving surgery and he told them they are all in God's hands. It was amazing looking around at all of us holding hands and praying together despite our differences. It literally made me cry.
Later in the day Despina, Jack and I went over to the hospital to check on patients coming out of surgery. Their parents were all holding them and didn't seem to want to put them down. They couldn't believe their children now had normal beautiful smiles. It was a short visit but we will go again this week and spend more time. On the way back we stopped and printed all of the pictures we had taken to give to the mothers. When I pulled them out they all crowded around me to see if I had one of their child. It was as though I was handing out money. It was crazy. They literally have never seen a picture of their child or of themselves. They wanted this more than anything. If I did not have one of their child they begged me to take one. It was so touching. I hope to have one for all of them by the end of the week to take home.
Now we're off to a dinner with the team where they have something special planned for Despina.
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This boy laughed endlessly when I put my sunglasses on him. It was so funny. Everyone with a camera was taking pictures of him!
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This is the bishop of David talking to all of the patients.
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Natalia, one of the students with me playing with a child.
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Holding Despina's hand all day. If she let go he'd grab it again!
 
 
So many thoughts to get down today. I hope I can get them all in. Today was our first day at the mission site and we thought we knew what to expect but it was far more overwhelming than we anticipated. The mission in Panama is a bit different in that many patients are pre screened and already know they will be receiving surgery. There were already over 200 surgeries scheduled before we arrived. Even though that was the case there were well over 100 more that just showed up today to be screened to see if they too could receive surgery this week. Many will stay but I witnessed for the first time in person a mother being turned away because her child was underweight and sick. My heart ached for her. The children and their families wait for many hours for this process. My favorite part of the day by far was the connection that Despina made with all of these kids. I never asked her to go play with them. She just jumped right in immediately. In fact, I think she was having way more fun than they were. It was so amazing that she never tired even for a minute. Those of you that know her well understand how her energy can just wear you out but today I understood that this is the perfect place for her and the perfect thing for her to be doing. While Despina handled several kids on her lap at once I spent time trying to calm very scared children that were getting their vitals checked and sitting with the surgeons. The Mom's were very tired and frustrated and happily handed their children to you for help. This went on for hours as little by little they were directed to the shelter where they will stay the whole week. When almost everyone was in the shelter we all took a deep breath in relief that we had gotten through screening! Until.... 7 bus loads of children and their families arrived moments later. Here we go.. Next round.

We made our way afterwards to the shelter where everyone was being assigned their cots. We found one little boy that was alone literally for hours and we could not find his mother. We could not get him to talk until I gave him a piece of gum and then he told us his name. We pulled his chart, tried calling the mother's phone number and learned it was a wrong number. I was so afraid that the mother had just left him there because he also told us that she left. We started asking for the mother with the megaphone... No response just blank stares. We later learned he was there with his grandmother and she had fallen asleep for 3 hours!
With all of these children being so tired, nervous and upset it was the absolute most rewarding thing when Despina would come over and make them smile through tears. In those moments I felt like despite the holes in their lips and the facial deformities that they had.. They were honestly the most beautiful smiles I had ever seen!
One last thought before I go... I often looked around at the nurses and doctors and volunteers that just kept going for hours and hours without stopping or taking a break. It was unbelievable what this team was doing... And today was only Day 1.
Tomorrow's our team day! We will get to know eachother even more so together we can make a big impact!
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This is Dr. Magee explaining to a mother that her child had far more needs than we could help her with in Panama. She needed a craniofacial doctor to help her with what her daughter needed and that she would have to wait until the baby was at least 6 months old. Today she is 2 months old. She was in tears.
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This baby loved Despina! She is getting surgery for a cleft palate.
 
 
After a much needed good night's sleep Despina and I headed out early this morning with Gaby and Joseph, our mission coordinators, to present Operation Smile to children at different Panamanian schools. The first school was an International school that spoke predominantly English during lessons. The Elementary, Middle and High Schools are all together in the same building. Despina presented to 5th grade and to middle school and to the Community Service club. Despite a few technical difficulties Despina was amazing! I knew she had no fear but even I was taken back by her poise, confidence and ability to speak. The kids were very interested and had many questions. The next school was a bit more challenging as English was spoken only some of the time so I think they got a little lost at points. It was also a much larger group. They kept raising their hand and asking where we wanted them to "bring the money " . We had to explain that we were not there to pick up donations. It was great though that the children wanted to help. All in all it went well with Gaby there to help us translate. Tomorrow our 2 high schoolers attending the mission with us will arrive. We head to our mission site in David, Panama by bus along with about 15 Panamanian high schoolers. Here we go!!!
 
 
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Despina is excited and nervous at the same time about the presentations she will give at the Panamanian schools. She wastes no time getting practice in!
 
 
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Children at Trantwood elementary where Despina gave an Operation Smile presentation are in this picture preparing happy hospital gowns for children having surgery in Panama. Thank you to Despina's cousin Despina Georgiou's class at Trantwood and to the fifth graders in Mrs. Wanamaker's and Mrs. Lehner's class at Linkhorn for the beautiful hospital gowns you all made. 4 days until our adventure begins!
 
 
The look on her face says it all. Despina could not be more thrilled about the adventure we're about to experience. Thank you to all my teammates at Bank of America for your donations of toys and things to do for the children of Panama! I can't wait to share it all with them. Despina has everything sorted, packed and ready to go!