Open Heart, Open Hands

Patient coordinator Carlos Mahalambe, left, rejoices with the patients and families he accompanied to Operation Smile’s July 2018 Quelimane medical mission. Photo: Zeke du Plessis.

Without its global network of selfless, caring and generous volunteers and staff, Operation Smile simply wouldn’t exist.

The organisation’s free, life-changing cleft surgeries are only made possible by people who unite from all walks of life, devoting their time, energy and compassion to those who need it most.

Through his work as a patient coordinator, Carlos Mahalambe is one of those people.

Driven to help Mozambicans affected by cleft conditions, the 42-year-old then-volunteer was responsible for bringing 18 potential patients to Operation Smile’s July 2018 medical mission held in Quelimane. As a staff member of Operation Smile in Mozambique, his efforts continue to make an immense impact: Carlos successfully recruited 89 patients to attend the August 2019 mission in Nampula.

“I was notified about the (Quelimane) mission, so I got in touch with the team and began advocating for patients,” said Carlos, smiling as he described his work. “I brought four people from my region, and when I arrived, I made some phone calls and connections and found another 14 potential patients in this region.”

Taking a unique path to becoming involved with Operation Smile, Carlos first learned about the organisation and its work in 2013 when he saw a poster at his previous workplace promoting an upcoming medical mission. While he had seen people living with cleft lip and cleft palate before, he never knew that surgery could repair the conditions.

Immediately, he knew that he could help.

“I was working at a lodge in Inhambane when I saw a poster for children needing help, and so I started to volunteer,” said Carlos, who worked as a luxury lodge manager. “I looked for patients, contacted them and dealt with the community to spread the word about recruiting patients.”

At the Quelimane medical mission’s patient village, patient coordinator Carlos Mahalambe was constantly on the move, supporting patients in any way he could. Photo: Zeke du Plessis.

Carlos helped patients and their families receive care from Operation Smile at both of its 2014 medical missions in Mozambique, as well as assisting with the post-operative process.

Soon thereafter, Operation Smile made the tough decision to suspend operations in Mozambique due to political unrest unfolding at that time. By 2017, those tensions had eased, and Operation Smile reached a new agreement with the Mozambican Ministry of Health. Going forward, the partnership will focus on conducting medical missions and providing training and education opportunities for local health professionals.

Even after the three-plus year pause in activity, Carlos was ready to jump back in when Operation Smile came calling again in 2018.

Raising awareness on the community level that cleft conditions are surgically treatable, Carlos uses pamphlets and literature provided by Operation Smile to explain the organisation’s mission when he visits schools and clinics.

“I talk with the people and say, ‘If you know any people who look like this and who need help or can’t afford to go for local surgery, they can please contact me and so I leave my number,’” Carlos said. “When they contact me, I forward them to Operation Smile. They then contact me and send me the scheduled date for the missions. I then let the patients know and I bring them with me.”

At the Quelimane mission’s patient village, Carlos was constantly on the move, supporting patients in any way he could.

“I assist with translating, helping patients with screening, making sure they get food and accommodation,” Carlos said. “If they get sick, I get them to the nurses and also helping them with anything they need.”

To be able to volunteer as a patient advocate throughout the Quelimane mission, Carlos used all of his annual leave, effectively donating that paid time off to the service of patients and their families. Uninterested in receiving praise or recognition for his efforts, he simply told his employer and co-workers at the time that he would be on vacation.

His motivation is as pure as it is profound.

“I feel happy because it’s like I am changing the life of the patient and that makes me very proud,” Carlos said. “I also see people being changed and becoming equal with the rest of the community. That makes me very happy.

“Let us open our hands, let us open our hearts and try to help those in need. It is very important for us to change the lives of others so they can become one with the rest of society.”

Patient coordinator Carlos Mahalambe speaks with Sean Robson of Operation Smile South Africa during the July 2018 Quelimane medical mission. Photo: Zeke du Plessis.