An Operation Called Hope
An experienced surgeon, Lisa admits that she has perfected the art of detaching emotionally from the inert patient on the table in front of her. But she has a real and personal connection to the value of humanitarian work: Three years ago, she operated on a little girl brought to Arkansas from an orphanage in central China with a disfiguring birthmark that had hijacked her face; a year later Lisa and her husband went to China to adopt the girl themselves, and Anna is now a thriving kindergartner, described by her mother as Miss Personality. Being in Zimbabwe gives Lisa what she calls reverse culture shock. "I feel absolutely in my element," she says, "but I'm amazed at how people hand their child over to somebody who doesn't even speak the same language. They're entrusting their baby's face to me, and I'm humbled. I have the best job in the world."
No, I have the best job. Everyone on the Op Hope team has brought a suitcase full of toys. I fill one pocket of my scrub suit with boy stuff like model cars and puzzles, another pocket with girl stuff like barrettes and bracelets, then load my arms with stuffed animals and both hands with finger puppets. I go into the ward like Santa Claus, and when the children receive a gift, they clap their hands as a thank-you.
The hardest part of this trip is not the 5 a.m. wake-up calls, the 14-hour days (mostly standing), the strange smells of this bankrupt country where hygiene is a luxury, nor the unnerving rumble of trouble from a government in collapse. (Our hotel is across the park from Parliament, the site of protests from the opposition party, and we discover in concerned e-mails from the States that politically motivated violence is a distinct possibility.) The hardest part is seeing a child frightened beyond my ability to comfort. And I'm not the only wimp: Patti confesses she can't cope when a child cries. So she has a bag of tricks to help. She's brought cherry-flavored anesthesia masks from home, which she puts on the children's faces while making a "yum-yum" sound, and then sings them to sleep—"Blue's Clues" and "Feliz Navidad" and "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star."
At 67, nurse anesthetist Bonnie Hilliard is the no-nonsense veteran of the group—this is her 15th humanitarian trip. She lives on 40 acres in rural Oregon with a menagerie of animals and works at a 20-bed hospital, where she never knows what kind of surgery will come up; it takes a lot to ruffle her. She's made considerable effort to anticipate any contingency here, in fact, bringing myriad supplies—from anesthesia drugs to tape for holding down IVs. "I try to keep myself as a unit," she says. "And since we don't have every modern convenience, it's like going back to the old days, when we had to use a more touch-and-feel approach to see how the patient was doing. It's a great chance to use all my skills." But the equipment here is a nightmare—an ancient Japanese anesthesia machine and monitors that may or may not tell her if a patient is in too light or too deep a sleep. At one point, the power goes out in the OR, and an emergency generator comes on. The power is restored in a few minutes, but later a member of the hospital staff says that sometime in the next week or so, the power will go off and it won't come back on. The surgeons will not have oxygen monitors, and they'll have to tell how the patients are doing the old-fashioned way: by looking at their fingernails. "It reminds me of the era when hospitals made you remove your nail polish before surgery," says Bonnie.