Smiles in Colombia

Trip Start Sep 15, 2010
Trip End Jul 23, 2011

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Flag of Colombia  ,
Thursday, July 21, 2011

As I reflect on my time in Colombia, there are three experiences that really standout ...

The first was attending a work conference in a part of the country that few foreign tourists visit.  This event was the first of its kind and trained medical professionals and parents with the skills needed to care for a child after surgery.  This is critical because most children born with cleft palate or cleft lip require years of post-operative speech therapy and/or psychological treatment.  Yet access to this care can be extremely difficult in rural areas with limited or no medical service.

Due to major bus delays I was only able to attend the final three hours of the conference.  Nonetheless, I helped out as the unofficial camerawoman and was inspired to see the team in action.  During this time I also met an adorable young girl named "Islandia."  She was volunteering at the conference and had received surgeries for cleft palate and cleft lip.  When we first met I had to ask her name five times because it was hard to understand her pronunciation (hence the importance of continued care).  She was shy at first, but after five minutes of asking about her school and family, she sweetly took hold of my hand and showed me around the hospital. 

Once the conference concluded I took a week off to explore the northern Caribean coastline.  I was in the tiny fishing village/backpacker hangout of Taganga for no more than two hours when I was invited to join a party on an old sailing ship anchored just off the beach.  I said sure, threw on my bikini and spent the next three days swimming, sunning and dancing.  The captain, Yan, was a great guy who had sailed all the way from his home in Norway, down to the coast of Africa and across the Atlantic.  Later that week, a lovely Belgian girl and myself joined him and his friends as they sailed further west to the historic city of Cartagena.  

Now what might strike you as a glamorous sailing getaway, wasn't quite so.  That's because we were racing against time as a hurricane from Panama approached from the opposite direction.  Nevertheless, we divided into four hour watch teams and rotated around the clock looking for oncoming ships.  Twelve hours into our journey, we were losing speed and Yan said we might have to turn around if the winds didn't change.  Luckily we gave it a few more hours and were able to stay the course.  We arrived in the twinkling port city of Cartagena just before dawn on the third day. 

The final highlight of my trip strikes a more personal note.  During my last few weeks volunteering with Operation Smile I had the opportunity to observe a surgery in person.  It was the third operation for an eight year old boy born with cleft palate and cleft lip. 

After changing into scrubs and donning a face mask, I entered the room just in time to see the nurse tape the boy's eyes shut and cover his face with yellow antiseptic cream.  Then I watched completely fascinated (and slightly nauseated) as the surgeons sliced and sewed the roof of his mouth back together again. 

As I stood there, I had a hard time believing that like this little boy, I too, was once on the operating table.  That's because, like him, I was born with cleft palate.  At the time, the state health insurance funds were cut and my dad's income as a carpenter wasn't nearly enough to pay for the necessary surgeries.  That's when Dr. Magee, the founder of Operation Smile, learned of my situation and performed both of my operations for free.  I spent the following seven years in speech therapy and under the care of an extraordinary craniofacial team. 

So as the tubes sucked and the machines beeped, I had to remind myself to breathe.  Not only because it was incredible to witness the miracle of modern medicine, but also because I was overwhelmed with gratitude.  With a deep appreciation for the generosity of others, I will always have a reason to smile. 
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Caroline House Freeman on

Darling Crystal, Thank you for sharing your magic carpet adventures with us. I've loved every exciting moment. Your last entry brought me to tears. It is so wonderful to have you safely home with us again.
Love you,

Ron on

Hey, Crystal -

It has surely been a pleasure watching your travels. It reminds me of my young days as a Navy man( Ha Ha).

God bless your heart -- that was a wonderful story. Good luck with the job search.

P.S. I hope the travel book helped you out.


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