Changing Lives: Q&A with Operation Smile volunteer nurse Jackie Matthews

Jackie Matthews works as a Clinical Nurse Specialist in the UK. She specialises in the care of infants and young children born with cleft conditions. She is also an Operation Smile volunteer and UK Medical Sub-committee member.

Jackie has been on medical missions to Mexico, Malawi, the Dominican Republic and Ghana.

Can you tell us more about your medical missions with Operation Smile?

I went on my very first medical mission as a volunteer in 2011 to Guadalajara, Mexico. My role was to help children in the recovery room just after they had received surgery.

On my second medical mission, I joined other professionals from the USA, Sweden, Russia and Estonia, flying to Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic.

There we screened more than 120 babies, children and adults, and had four operating rooms running consecutively, performing facial repairs for cleft lips, palates and other conditions. In total, we performed surgery on 79 patients, the youngest being just six months old – a little boy named Joshua.

I was lucky enough to follow little Joshua through the patient journey, accompanying him at screening, pre-operative assessment and on the morning of his surgery when I recovered him after his procedure and he woke to a familiar face. I was able to answer his mum’s questions and formed a relationship that really helped allay her fears. It was an amazing experience.

UK medical volunteer Jackie Matthews entertains a baby held by her mother

Jackie plays with a baby during a medical mission in Malawi

UK volunteer nurse Jackie Matthews comforts an emotional mother as she looks at her child after cleft surgery

Jackie comforts a mother as she sees her child for the first time after cleft surgery

What are the main challenges you and the other medical volunteers have to face during a medical mission?

When an Operation Smile team arrives in a new country for a 10 day surgical programme we take much of our own equipment. This is so that we can follow, as closely as we can, the theatre environment, and standards we enjoy at home. Even then, on my last mission to Ghana, we had to contend with heat, electrical storms, and power failures!

During each mission we have to adapt to the new theatres and hospital environment. It’s very grounding work, with a team you’ve never met before. We hit the ground running, and have to be confident in our job so that we can meet any emergency and know what to do and who to go to.

Are there any similarities between your job in the UK and the one you do with Operation Smile?

My job is the same wherever I am, of course the conditions vary from country to country, but people are more like each other than we can imagine.

When a father at my hospital in the UK hands his child over to me, the worry in his eyes is just the same as in the eyes of a mother in the Dominican Republic when she hands over her teenage daughter. There are many tearful moments when you see a child’s beautiful smile and their parents’ reactions when they see their child after their operation. It is so rewarding to know we’ve played a part in this transformation.

It really breaks my heart every time I meet a child who does everything to hide their smile.

Why are you so passionate about Operation Smile?

I consider myself lucky because I can see for myself the difference we can make together – to so many children and their families. My work doesn’t end when I come back to the UK – it continues and multiplies as I can tell other people what I have seen. I also love talking about my experiences and showing my photographs to local groups and schools.

Our promise of improving health and dignity during the COVID-19 pandemic endures. Once again, we’re providing surgery and in-person care while taking stringent measures to keep our patients, their families and our volunteers safe. Hope is on the horizon. And we remain focused on what cleft care makes possible for children, helping them to better breathe, eat, speak and live with confidence.

Our medical missions wouldn't be possible without our amazing medical volunteers, who selflessly give up their free time to support us. Help us continue to provide life-changing cleft care by clicking the link below.

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