Annemieke is a paediatric intensivist and a member of the Operation Smile UK medical subcommittee. Annemieke has volunteered for many medical missions, travelling to India, Cambodia, Kenya, Ethiopia, Namibia, South Africa, Jordan, China, Honduras, Paraguay, Malawi, Vietnam and Madagascar.
Annemieke with a patient
What inspired you to first get involved with Operation Smile?
As soon as I qualified as a Paediatric Intensivist I started working with Operation Smile. Living in a Western country I think it’s easy to forget how privileged we are to have excellent healthcare that is safe, reliable and accessible to all.
What I like most about Operation Smile is that we involve local healthcare professionals and medical students, teaching and training them to be able to continue providing medical care after we have left the country.
You were recently part of a medical mission to India with Operation Smile. What did you do there?
I always go as Paediatric Intensivist, team doctor and one of the team leaders. Pre-operatively I’m part of the team screening patients that are eligible for surgery. We come across an array of diseases and disorders and also offer support and treatment for patients that aren’t surgical candidates.
After helping create the surgical schedule I spend most of my time in the recovery room, assessing post operative patients. Because the paediatric wards have no ability to monitor vital parameters and can be quite hectic, I need to guarantee patients have no risk of complications before they leave the recovery room. I always work closely with an excellent team of nurses, who allow me to be flexible in supporting the anaesthetic team, patient wards and continue screening newly arrived patients.
What is it like to be there at the medical mission site as families start to arrive?
Local Operation Smile staff will inform patients and their families several months before the mission starts, providing logistic details such as the location and the available transportation. When the international volunteers arrive most of the families and patients are already at the location being cared for (shelter and food).
We meet patients and families for the first time during the screening process, when we examine patients and review if they are eligible for surgery. On a screening day we usually see well over 100 patients. These days are long, the language barriers can be challenging and we rely heavily on our local volunteers, often medical students, who help us communicate with families and take away any cultural barriers.
I am always humbled by the enthusiasm and patience of the local teams and families. Despite sometimes having waited for several hours to be examined, people are always welcoming and kind. It’s the moments when you connect with a family or share a laugh that makes these days so special to me.
How has volunteering with Operation Smile impacted you professionally and personally?
Having worked in hospitals with extremely limited resources (no basic medications, electricity, fresh water) has reinforced how fortunate I am to have a safe home, access to medical care, clean water and food. I have never needed to question these things as a child, adult or as a medical professional working in the UK.
Working with medical professionals from different cultural, economical and religious backgrounds has made me a better and more compassionate doctor. I love working with an enthusiastic team of professionals that continuously supports and teaches each other.
Meeting patients and families has opened my eyes to the injustices in the world and has strengthened my determination to give back and make a difference in somebody’s life and I hope to continue my work with Operation Smile in the years to come.