Jackie’s Story

Jackie Matthews, works as Clinical Nurse Specialist for South Thames Cleft Service at Guy’s and St Thomas’ Hospital, based at Queen Victoria Hospital at East Grinstead. She specialises in the care of infants and young children born with cleft conditions but she is also an Operation Smile volunteer and UK Medical Subcommittee member.

She has been on missions to Mexico, twice to the Dominican Republic and to Ghana.

Can you tell us more about your medical missions with Operation Smile?

I went on my very first medical mission as a volunteer in 2011 to Guadalajara, Mexico. My role was to help children in recovery just after they had received surgery.

On my second medical mission, and as the only British nurse on the mission, I joined other professionals from the USA, Sweden, Russia and Estonia, flying to Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic.

There we screened more than 120 babies, children and adults, and had four operating rooms running consecutively, performing facial repairs for cleft lips, palates and other deformities. In total, we performed surgery on 79 patients, the youngest being just six months old – a little boy named Joshua.

I was lucky enough to follow little Joshua through the patient journey, accompanying him at screening, pre-operative assessment and on the morning of his surgery when I recovered him after his procedure and he woke to a familiar face. I was able to answer his mum’s questions and formed a relationship that really helped allay her fears. It was an amazing experience.

What are the main challenges you and the other medical volunteers have to face during a medical mission?

When an Operation Smile team arrives in a new country for a 10 day mission we take much of our own equipment to follow as closely as we can the theatre environment and standards we enjoy at home. Even then on my last mission to Ghana, we had to contend with heat, electrical storms and power failures!

During each mission we have to adapt to the new theatres and hospital environment and its very grounding work, with a team you’ve never met before. We hit the ground running, and have to be confident in our job so that we can meet any emergency and know what to do and who to go to.

Are there any similarities between your job in the UK and the one you do with Operation Smile?

My job is the same wherever I am, of course the conditions vary from country to country, but people are more like each other than we can imagine. When a father at my hospital in the UK hands his child over to me, the worry in his eyes is just the same as in the eyes of a mother in the Dominican Republic when she hands over her teenage daughter. There are many tearful moments when you see a child’s beautiful smile and their parents’ reactions when they see their child after their operation. It is so rewarding to know we’ve played a part in this transformation.

It really breaks my heart every time I meet a child who does everything to hide his or her smile.

Why are you so passionate about Operation Smile?

I consider myself lucky because I can see for myself the difference we can make together – to so many children and their families. My work doesn’t end with a mission – it continues and multiplies as I can tell other people what I have seen. I also love talking about my experiences and showing my photographs to local groups and schools.

None of our missions can happen without the ongoing help of our generous supporters. To help to support Jackie and the other hardworking UK volunteers in their life-transforming work, please click here.