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Instead of taking the typical vacation to a sunny beach, this summer Ann Campbell, a faculty member in the Old Dominion University School of Nursing, traveled halfway around the world to Bangladesh with Operation Smile; a non-profit volunteer medical services organization which provides free reconstructive surgery and related health care to children and young adults around the world suffering with cleft lips, cleft palates and other facial deformities.

The humanitarian mission, conducted with the U.S. Navy hospital ship USNS Mercy, marked a first-time partnership with Operation Smile and the Navy, and the first time the group had performed a mission in that country.

Campbell, a senior lecturer in the nursing school, is passionate about the work Operation Smile does, and for the past seven years has volunteered with the organization, including two previous missions to Brazil and Morocco.

The crew of the Mercy has been active in Southeast Asia since the 2004 tsunami disaster, working on three health-related humanitarian missions. The ship contains a 1,000-bed, completely functional hospital.

Campbell and the other Operation Smile volunteers, had a long journey to Bangladesh. "It was a grueling, 37-hour trip," she said. "Part of the Operation Smile team flew from Norfolk to New York; New York to Dubai, United Arab Emirates; Dubai to Dhaka, Bangladesh; and Dhaka to Chittagong." Chittagong, the largest seaport in Bangladesh, is a busy industrial city of 4 million people.

A typical Operation Smile international mission includes approximately 50 team members of surgeons, anesthesiologists, nurses, pediatricians, a dentist and other medical and non-medical volunteers. This particular mission was a smaller scale mission including 38 team members, many from the Hampton Roads region.

The day after their arrival, Campbell and her colleagues set up shop at Chittagong Medical College Hospital, where they provided free medical evaluations to children suffering with cleft lips and cleft palates. Of the hundreds of potential patients, the group could select only 54 to receive surgery. The children they were unable to assist were referred to local health care providers and facilities, Campbell said.

Those selected for surgery, along with their parents or guardians, were transported by helicopter from Chittagong to the USNS Mercy, where Operation Smile medical volunteers, Navy personnel and members of Chittagong Medical College Hospital worked together to provide the children with free reconstructive surgery. Most of children and their parents had never been out of their village, let alone seen a helicopter, Campbell said.

She was happy to report that all surgeries went as planned, although the mission was cut short by one day due to an impending monsoon.

The mission became a teaching experience as well for Campbell, who was able to work with four English-speaking Bengali nursing students. "I just gravitated to them," she said. "They were so eager to learn, to absorb American culture; it was such a rewarding experience to pass along our nursing techniques."

Operation Smile medical volunteers will return to Bangladesh in six months and a year to evaluate the development of the patients post-surgery.

Campbell said she hopes the cleft candidates they were unable to treat will return for treatment next year, as Operation Smile has future plans to conduct missions in Bangladesh.

"It was an honor to be a part of this form of medical diplomacy, to provide these children with state-of-the art care and to make a difference in their lives," she said.

This article was posted on: August 22, 2006

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