Photo: Vanessa Vick
In the desperately poor African country of Zimbabwe, an all-female team of medical miracle workers is changing (and often saving) lives by providing free reconstructive surgery to children with cleft lips and palates. Difficult? Yes. The best thing they've ever done? Without a doubt. Aimee Lee Ball puts on her scrubs.
The people of Zimbabwe sometimes give their babies names that reflect the adversity of their lives in an impoverished and strife-scarred country, where grocery shelves hold little but cornmeal and a policeman earns the equivalent of about $10 a month. So when a group of American doctors and nurses arrive at the pediatric wing of Harare Central Hospital to perform free facial reconstructive surgeries, the children who are brought to be evaluated include Hard Times, No Matter, Wishes, Forget, Otherwise, Again (the ninth child in the family), and Swear to the Sky.
Go Inside: Take a look at the amazing operation
For several months, posters in public spaces have notified people in remote corners of this country about Operation of Hope, the brainchild of Joseph Clawson, MD, a surgeon from Longview, Washington. Dr. Joe, as he's known by patients, retired from private practice when HMOs took over the healthcare system and he realized he wasn't a 15-minute kind of physician. He began traveling to disadvantaged places in the world, starting with Chernobyl after the nuclear power plant disaster, and he kept trying to find the areas of greatest need. Learning that Zimbabwe had a large number of children with congenital defects—especially cleft lips and palates—he made plans to go in the fall of 2006. The day before his departure, the minister of health called to say, "We don't know if there will be any babies for you," and Dr. Joe said, "If there's one, I'm coming." On that trip, he had to turn away 50 children in one day and made a commitment to return twice a year. Now, for the first time, his medical team—surgeon, resident, anesthesiologist, nurse anesthetist, recovery nurse, floor nurse, and scrub technician—is composed entirely of women.
And that's how I got involved: A year ago, I met Op Hope's executive director, Jennifer Trubenbach, 49, from Lake Forest, California, when she won the O magazine contest to join Oprah Winfrey at Miraval Resort and Spa. Most of the contest winners were deemed deserving of a spa vacation because of serious stress and calamity in their lives—the group included an Iraq war veteran, an Iraq war widow, and a woman whose son was killed in a drive-by shooting—but Jennifer won because her life is about helping others. She is Dr. Joe's daughter and gave up a career as a technology consultant for two Fortune 10 companies to run Op Hope. We stayed in touch by e-mail, and when the all-woman team was assembled for Zimbabwe, she called with an irresistible proposal: Come along as a volunteer.