I thought I had made a terrible mistake.
It was 1988 and I was struggling in a dimly lit operating room in Liberia, West Africa.
This was my first mission trip with Operation Smile… a volunteer organization providing medical care and surgical treatment for children with cleft lip, palate, and other facial birth and traumatic deformities. My Plastic Surgery Fellowship director and founder of Operation Smile, Dr. Bill Magee, had invited me to participate in their first mission to Liberia. I had never experienced medical mission work nor traveled to that part of the world, but I was in a very negative place with my personal life and thought getting away would help. It was a great opportunity and I was excited. I thought I was well trained and ready. I was wrong.
Shortly after our group arrived, I began to realize how naive and ill-prepared I really was and how much I had taken for granted growing up and training in the privilege of America. The poverty we encountered in Liberia was overwhelming. I wasn’t prepared for the dingy ‘hotel’ room full of insects and the cockroaches on the morning bus (I hate bugs!) taking our team to the hospital, nor the screening clinic overwhelmed with hundreds of needy children and family members, many of whom had walked for days with only hope and no guarantees. I didn’t anticipate the lack of basic OR and medical equipment and supplies. Most of the children were malnourished and chronically infected with malaria and hookworms. I wasn’t ready for this.
One of my first cases was a young boy, similar in age to my two sons that I had just left at home. He had an unusually large cleft in his face and palate that became more distorted and wider when he tried to smile. His young mother, whom I had never met, gave him to me and I took him back to the makeshift OR where there were two operating tables per room. I thought I knew what I was doing but struggled with bleeding (with chronic malaria and malnutrition blood does not clot well in surgery), poor lighting, limited instruments, and trying to reconstruct the large facial defect. I wasn’t ready for any of this and started to doubt myself and my abilities, what I was doing, and why I was even there so far away from home and family. Not a good mental or emotional place to be for a surgeon.
After I finally finished the surgery, I took the child back to recovery where his mother was waiting. When she first saw him, she didn’t believe it was her son. She didn’t recognize him without the hole in his face. When she finally understood, she started to cry. And then she gave me, an unknown doctor whom she had just met a few hours earlier, a sudden hug that I will never forget. It was then that I finally understood. That day I was given a lifelong lesson in humility and the power of gratitude and giving.
When you are down, help others.
Right now, all of us, our country, the world is hurting. This once in a lifetime pandemic has spread fear and uncertainty, and health and economic hardship that can seem overwhelming and result in severe emotional stress and a feeling of helplessness. Quarantines and social isolation have brought us down emotionally.
Medical researchers and psychologists have confirmed and documented the physical and mental price of extended social isolation. Numerous studies link isolation and loneliness to depression, dementia, heart attacks, and stroke. One Harvard research study found that social isolation is equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day in health impact. Faced with the uncertainty and anxiety from these heath, economic, and emotional hardships, what can we possibly do?
When feeling overwhelmed and worried, giving to others can be empowering, can lift us up like nothing else. Stress researchers have long understood the mental and emotional benefits of doing good. In our culture, when we identify a need, we do our best to fill it. There is a surprising amount of power and mutual benefit in the generosity of the human spirit. Everyone has something they could share… here are some possibilities:
Support Local and Small Business
Small businesses employ more than 50% of all U.S. workers and produce nearly half of the gross domestic product in America. And these same small businesses are the ones suffering most from the economic shutdown, many may not survive. Local restaurants are especially vulnerable and, according to estimates, up to 80% may be forced to close permanently. You can make a difference. Try ordering out whenever possible from a local restaurant and try keeping your grocery and other purchases with local businesses as well. It may cost a bit more or be slightly less convenient than ordering from the national franchises or big box stores, but consider that your efforts may help save a neighbor’s livelihood…..and that’s something to feel good about. Learn more from the Restaurant Workers’ Community Foundation at restaurantworkerscf.org.
Donate to Local Food Banks
Sudden and dramatic increased demand and supply shortages have overwhelmed community food banks. The organization Feeding America estimates a $1.4 billion shortfall for food-bank operations in the U.S. in the next 6 months. Many of the people waiting in line are not just the traditionally poor but newly unemployed that have lost income or additional resources, possibly your neighbors and friends. Going through your cupboards and kitchens will usually reveal a large number of non-perishable goods that could be donated. Financial contributions are especially needed according to local officials. Enter your ZIP Code inFeedingAmerica.org’s database, click on “Find a Food Bank” to identify local options. Another option that parents and children can do together online is going to any supermarket website, fill the ‘cart’ with groceries they would like to buy for a family in need, then donate what that cart would cost to the food bank. Learn more from the local UnitedWayToledo.org.
Give Blood and Plasma
Significant increased COVID-19 related hospitalizations have contributed to a sudden blood shortage to treat the critically ill and strained our health systems. A Healthy and qualified donor can help relieve this shortage. If you have recovered from COVID-19 you may be able to donate convalescent plasma which contains potentially lifesaving antibodies against COVID-19 and can be given to severely ill patients infected with the coronavirus. Contact the local Red Cross at the American Red Cross of Northwest Ohio at redcross.org or America’s Blood Centers at americasblood.org.
Donate Your Time
One of the greatest gifts of all, and something that anyone can afford, are your time and talents. Not everyone has the financial ability to donate funds but offering your talents and emotional support or assisting those in need can be just as impactful. Local churches and community organizations need help and welcome volunteers. I am sure that we all have elderly relatives or neighbors that are isolated and dealing with loneliness. Some people have been organizing sewing groups to make protective masks and other necessities. At the local level, communities have set up mutual-aid networks that connect people directly to a neighbor in need. Even something as simple as a phone call or FaceTime call or sending favorite family photos and videos to elderly relatives, friends, and neighbors can help diminish the pain and health risks of loneliness and isolation. Surprisingly the consumer staple that has shown the highest percentage increase in demand is not toilet paper or hand wipes, but baker’s yeast…..many are baking more and giving bread to family, friends, and neighbors as an expression of love and support. Reach out to your community and you, as well as your family, can make a difference.
The challenges and hardships of this once in a lifetime pandemic remind us of the words of Albert Einstein, ‘In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity’. Across the country, people suddenly feeling helpless and down are finding a sense of purpose and relief from some of the stress in volunteerism and helping others. Instead of simply reacting and giving in to fear, they are choosing courage. As clinical studies have confirmed, helping others can distract us from our own problems, increase our sense of meaning and purpose, and reduce the toll stress takes on our bodies and minds. Doing something positive for someone else can increase our own feelings of self-worth and control at a time when so much of the world is outside of our control. So, we encourage you to Rise Up... giving to others really is also good for you!
I learned so many life lessons on that first Operation Smile mission, both professionally and personally. Learning how to be patient, flexible, and more appreciative helped me become a better surgeon, a better father, a better man. The trust and gratitude in that young mother’s hug was humbling, a lifelong lesson of the power in helping others and a great reminder of the connections between all of us. The experience taught me how helping others can help ourselves. It also makes one realize that perhaps our greatest and most impactful strength in this country just might be our compassion for one another. As the philosopher, Marcus Aurelius advised ‘The only things you get to keep, are the things you give away’.
All of us at EVOLV Aesthetics would like to extend our support and gratitude to our patients, friends, and staff and hope that you are staying safe and healthy. We will be in touch shortly and are excited to begin a structured, safe, and gradual reopening of services and patient care in May. Please nominate your favorite local COVID-19 Hero for the chance to receive a recognition award (COMPLIMENTARY HydraFacial and LightStim Bed treatment value of $350) at EVOLV! We are going to come back stronger, more focused, and certainly more educated!
We have missed you all and look forward to seeing you soon!
Frank Barone MD FACS