Nicole Cromwell, RN, San Jose, CA
I am a 39 year old ICU and recovery room nurse in California. In 2003, the husband of a nurse I work with sent me an email asking if I’d be interested in volunteering with Medical Missions for Children (“MMFC”). I learned that MMFC, a Massachusetts-based non-profit organization, provides free surgical, medical and dental care to impoverished children and young adults in developing countries around the world, focusing on the surgical repair of cleft lip and palate deformities, microtia (absence of the ear) and dental disease. I had always wanted to do this kind of volunteer work and immediately jumped at the chance!
Over the past five years, I have been on over a dozen MMFC missions, typically 2-4 missions each year! I use my own vacation time and pay a small yearly fee. In return, I have been given the most amazing opportunity to travel around the world, everywhere from Ecuador to The Philippines to Rwanda, and many places in between. Every trip is different- I get to meet wonderful people, experience cultures in a completely different way, and feel incredibly rewarded by the work we do on each and every mission.
One of the most meaningful missions I recently experienced was to Rwanda. For a country that has been through and continues to go through so much turmoil, it is by far the most beautiful. There are vivid green rolling hills as far as the eyes can see.
The mission to Rwanda was a particularly physically demanding one. I traveled with 10 other volunteers and we brought most of our medical and surgical supplies and equipment right along with us. We traveled by plane for over 24 hours, followed by a 3 hour bumpy, cramped, crowded bus ride to the village Gitwe. When we arrived, the village people stared at us with a bit of trepidation and suspicion but once we smiled and waved, we were met with the biggest grins and the kindest eyes you could imagine. In no time, the children were excitedly running in circles around us.
While in Rwanda, we stayed with host families, and each day began with a wonderful meal prepared for us, usually consisting of soup, oatmeal, fresh avocados with honey on thick sliced bread, and tea. After a filling breakfast, we would walk about a mile on a dirt road to the hospital. On the first day, we saw lines of people around the hospital that had been forming for hours. We heard story after story of families who had traveled for hours and sometimes days with their children with the hope of being evaluated by our surgeons. Adults with large goiters were checked, measured, and evaluated for surgery. Children and young adults with cleft lips and palates were also examined, photographed, and scheduled for surgery. Once we knew how many patients we had, the doctors got busy working on the schedule. We turned storage rooms into recovery rooms, basic procedure rooms into operating rooms, and hallways into supply rooms.
During each of our 10, 10-12 hour work days, our team of doctors and nurses performed 10-15 surgeries. My job on the Rwanda mission was to assist the children after surgery making sure they awoke from the procedures without complication or discomfort. I administered pain and anti nausea medications, and spent a lot of time teaching the parents how to care for their children. I was keenly aware as I held and cared for these children that the corrective and reparative procedures we had just performed would, in large measure, resolve the significant health issues and heartbreaking social isolation they had suffered since birth. The sense of purpose I experienced on the MMFC mission to Rwanda and the connection I shared with the children remains profound … and life-altering. It is something I have experienced on each and every MMFC mission.
In addition to our work days, every mission also provides for a wonderful opportunity to explore a new culture and sightsee. Visiting the Virunga National Park in Rwanda to see the mountain gorillas was amazing! We hiked about 2 hours into the jungle with two guides- one with a machete to cut our way through and the other with a rifle to protect us from all sorts of predators that we may happen upon. Luckily, there were no issues there! The park has rangers that sleep in the jungle and track the gorilla families so that our guide knew exactly where to take us. All of a sudden we were told that we were close to a family. We put our gear down and cautiously ventured forward into a clearing. We came around the corner and there were 3 females and their babies! The park rule is to not go within 10 feet of the gorillas but we were also told that the gorillas don’t always follow the rules. The babies were very curious and really wanted to see what we were all about. The adult females just watched us cautiously from a distance. Around another bend and we spotted the adult alpha male gorilla. What a sight he was! Our guides told us he was about 500lbs and not to be messed with. He sat at a distance and stared at us for awhile, then raised up his arm and curled it- as if showing us his strength and who was in charge. They only allow each group an hour with the gorillas and a couple of minutes before our hour was through, the large alpha male started walking towards us as if to say, “time’s up”.
I feel so fortunate that I am able to volunteer my time and nursing skills with MMFC. Wherever we go, we receive the same reaction from grateful parents, amazement and tears of happiness at the gift we have been able to give to their children. I work with such a dedicated and loving team of surgeons, anesthesiologists, dentists and nurses – all of whom, like me, just want to do our small part in making this world a better place. There is no better joy than to bring a joyful smile – and a happier and healthier life – to a child.