Most problems, large or small, are dumped in Jennifer's lap, and to get through the day she guzzles a vile gel from a tube called Rapid Energy Fuel that provides 50 milligrams of caffeine. Her problem solving runs the gamut from finding diapers for babies who have only rags wrapped around them to finding an MRI for a patient whose lungs are a concern, but her bailiwick extends to our hotel, where we're being awakened by a ringing phone around midnight every night, only to find nobody on the line. We finally realize that prostitutes in the hotel bar are dialing random room numbers and hanging up if a female voice answers, so Jennifer has a little chat with the management
There is one problem that can't be solved, not on this trip: Everyone's favorite kid is a 13-year-old named Tinashe, who endears himself with his gentle manner (and his winks when he passes one of the Op Hope women). His soft cleft palate is part of a particular kind of condition called Pierre Robin sequence: His jaw seems to be connected to his neck with almost no chin in between. He's taken into surgery, but when the doctors try to get a tube down his throat, they can't see what they're doing. It's possible that they could operate with a special lighted instrument called a flexible fiber-optic bronchoscope—not exactly standard issue in a place where even Q-tips are hard to come by—but even if such a device were acquired for Op Hope's next trip, it might not be the answer: Tinashe is close to the age when surgery alone would yield little improvement in speech. His brain is hardwired to dealing with his impairment. When he wakes up in recovery, he points to his mouth and is told the surgery didn't happen. The playful boy is gone, silent tears streaming down his cheeks. And as I'm hugging him, in a feeble attempt at comfort, I know this is a moment I'll bring home with me. If Tinashe can't have the surgery, he could still benefit from speech therapy and dental work, both real luxuries in this country. I make a vow to raise funds for him back in the States.
Working under conditions that range from impractical to primitive, Operation of Hope has performed more than 2,000 surgeries but lost only one patient, a baby with a preexisting heart condition. Jennifer still remembers going into the waiting room to tell the mother, who said simply, "I know." There's a legend in Zimbabwe about a mermaid who appears when a child dies: If the mother cries, the mermaid will take the child to the bottom of the river—not a good resting place. But if the mother doesn't cry, the mermaid will carry the child to the shore and care for it.