Everything shifts

We were so worried leaving last week. Every one of us that is from out of the country was heading home for Christmas and we thought "What about the children?" Not once since we started in October 2011have we missed the weekly meals and I couldn't stand the thought of missing now, after all this time. The food can be quite time consuming and difficult to cook if you have not done it before so we arranged to have our hospital cafeteria make it, my local friend who has been helping for nearly a year would pick it up and bring it for distribution. In addition, there is a nursing student from the states visiting and she was interested in helping pass out the food. As Saturday night in California rolled around my mind, as always when I am here, drifted to Guwahati and Lakhtokia. I worried that something would go wrong and the food wouldn't make it, I worried that the nursing student would be overwhelmed, and we wouldn't be there to talk about it. Somewhere, though, I knew that the sense of stability and consistency has already changed this community and its children. I knew everything would be okay. I woke up in the middle of the night to a beautiful message from the nursing student:

"I am having trouble finding words to describe how I felt and how I feel now. At one point I was absolutely speechless and almost started crying. Even now....The kids were having such a blast! As soon as they saw us their faces lit up and they ran to get the others, and they took our hands leading us. You were right, they just want to be loved...."

A huge wave of emotion washed over me. I so vividly remember that moment. The one where everything shifts. Where you realize now you have seen and met these children. They are more than just a face on a screen; their level of poverty is beyond comprehension (and so often their joy too) and the fact that it is found in the middle of a city makes the disparity that much more obvious. Yes, now their lives are more than something you have heard about and somehow your existence and theirs have become intertwined.

Everything shifts

Your reality will never be the same. Gosh, I remember that exact moment. Something rips open and all of this very real need just spills out before you. The world seems to grow underneath your feet as you stand there with three children in your arms and a dozen more excitedly waiting for their turn to be hugged (read: to be loved). The world inexplicably expands, it becomes huge and in the moment you remember how we exclaim: 

"The world is mine!"

A triumphant statement of ownership that no longer seems acceptable because now you know, it is not the world which belongs to you, but you who so clearly belongs to the world. 

 Photo by Laura C. Steinbach from 09/12

Photo by Laura C. Steinbach from 09/12

 Photo by Laura C. Steinbach from 09/12

Photo by Laura C. Steinbach from 09/12



Running into her on the streets, finding her hard at work warms me from the inside out. It takes away that chill in my bones caused by the cool winter air. Her eyes are so bright that you almost can't see the pain etched deep inside them from a life time of struggle. She, this woman so recently fighting for her life, for each and every breath now stands strongly back at work making a small but tangible existence for her family. She, a woman so thin that I thought she must surely be suffering from HIV in addition to her tuberculosis, proved otherwise and has come full circle in her fight. It wasn't long back that I rushed with her to the hospital when she was in severe distress. Her bright eyes were starving for oxygen, her lungs begging for breath. Every muscle in her frail body was exhausting itself just to inhale, exhale. It wasn't so long ago that I sat next to her hospital bed and held her hand until she slept, with no one else to come and attend to her. It wasn't so long ago that I worried she wouldn't make it, I worried that her daughter would be orphaned and that this could really be the end of her fight. It seemed like a miracle, when I got the call at work that she was discharged from the hospital and not long after that declared tuberculosis free. Slowly she became stronger and stronger and she no longer needed me to come and meet her every day for medicine. Oh, how I miss seeing her every morning but these unexpected meetings feel like letting go of a long held breath. Like the kind of coming home where it doesn't matter where you are, you know you are home as soon as you are in the presence of that single person. It feels like knowing that one, just one still matters. One life, one woman, one mother, one friend.



180+ Smiles in Cebu, Philippines

Looking out the window of the plane flying into Manila I saw the ocean dotted with fishing huts reaching far out from the shore and I knew, we had arrived in the Philippines. I so often feel like you can't tell one place from another when high in the sky, but you most certainly can. The red earth of Africa, the architecture of the homes seemingly stacked upon homes in India, the fishing huts in the Philippines, the curve of the shoreline in California.... and somehow every place feels like arriving home.

I travelled with two of the Indian nurses I work with, it was their first time out of the country and we could not have been more blessed to get to be a part of Operation Smile's 30th anniversary celebration in their journey to change lives forever.

30 years ago Dr. Bill Magee travelled to Naga City and performed 40 cleft surgeries, having to turn away 260 other patients who so desperately needed their help. This is how Operation Smile was born out of a previously unanswerable need to bring these children back into an accepted part of society. 30 years later and over 200,000 operations have been performed. I would say that Dr.Magee is seeing his dream come true to make the world cleft free. There is a passion so intertwined in this organization, it can not be escaped. In the month of November 1,000 medical volunteers gathered at 9 medical mission sites all over the Philippines and together performed 1,219 life changing surgeries. What an incredible month!

The site I was on was in Cebu City, the second largest city in the Philippines and, in my opinion, the most amazing team was there! From screening day onward, I was blown away by the happiness and warmth the patients and their families had. I feel like no matter where OpSmile takes me, I fall in love with the people and the country and the Philippines was no exception. Every time I walked past the ward I was greeted with smiles, waves, and the classic Filipino "handsome" pose (see below.) I can't even begin to describe how impossible it is not to love these kids! We completed over 180 successful surgeries when it was all said and done and of course I found it difficult to leave on that last day knowing I will likely never see these children again. 

At the end of the mission week, the four teams gathered back in Manila to celebrate together. It was a great time catching up with all the other teams and spending time with old friends from past missions. We had a lot of dancing and each team performed a dance that they practiced during the week. Our team raised money to pay for two surgeries during the week and the prize was that we got to shave the student sponsor's head! It was such a good end to an incredible week together. 

 On our team day we saw the dancing inmates . I still don't know how I feel about it. It is a 'maximum security' prison but we got to take pictures with a few of them? I'm confused :/

 Pre-operative waiting area

 The classic Filipino picture pose! So handsome!!

Mack our coordinator!!

 Now that is commitment to the cause! Bye Bye hair!

Team Cebu!


Hours I spent pouring over the shoe shops in Fancy Bazar after measuring every available child's foot in Lakhtokia. Carefully measuring each shoe to match each girl or boy, I loaded up 50 pairs onto my scooter, went home and with help carefully organized each size into different bags. With excitement in our eyes, Sunday rolled around with it came shoe distribution day! The children ran up to me with their dirtied, tiny slips of paper they were given after being measured. Excitedly they pulled their papers out of their pockets, their homes and underwear. Somehow in the madness, they had held onto their number slips for two weeks. I couldn't believe it! Huge hugs and squeals all around, the shoes had arrived!

Imagine their heartbreak when the shoes didn't fit... anyone! I handed out the first pair and the look of joy on her face was quickly replaced by sadness when she tried to put on the shoe and it was too small. I nearly started crying, I had not bought the shoes correctly and soon everything started to get out of control. After realizing that, we decided to collect back all of the shoes and re-group for next week. I went home with a heavy heart. Learning all of this as we go is so hard sometimes. The last thing we wanted was to make such a happy day, a sad one. I felt disappointed in myself but more determined than ever to make it work the following Sunday. I re-measured all the shoes, bought 45 more pairs of sandals, re-organized and mentally prepared to hand them out again. We arrived and succesfully passed out around 70 pairs of sandals! The kids were calm enough this time around that my friends and I could individually ensure that the pair given fit well and the kids walked away ecstatic!

So here is to goals being met just a few days before Thanksgiving. I am so thankful for continuing to be able to be a part of the lives of these children. Even more so, I am grateful for the support they receive when we take on projects like this. Every child we work with received a pair of shoes, a huge gift in their lives. Thank you so much for helping us to make this happen. In this season of giving, you are helping us to give to those who never ask and would never otherwise receive. Thank you, on behalf of the children of Lakhtokia.

Darjeeling: In Pictures

(from November)

The Himalayas!

 Momos (dumplings) being hand made

 Tibetan carpets being loomed 

Vegetable dyed wool, made by Tibetan refugees living in Darjeeling 

 Tea tasting at Happy Valley Tea Estate

 The toy train...

On the toy train

Le Baby Taj!

The Taj Mahal in a different light


Barefoot Free November

All this time later and still I have to look down at my feet as I stumble down & over the train tracks of Lakhtokia, struggling to hold my balance while avoiding glass shards, waste, nails, rusting metal and other discarded materials that line the homes of these children. I see my own clumsy feet, protected by sandals, but always my eyes drift to the feet of the kids holding my hands as we meander along. They are graceful and coordinated in comparison to me. After all, this what they have known their entire lives. Ever since learning to walk they've been left on their own to navigate the waste in their tiny bare feet. Often, as looks would have it, they probably learned what to avoid the hard way. Their feet, oh their feet. Very rarely do they have even sandals to protect themselves. Their feet are worn and rugged, tired at too young an age. Scarred with injuries old and new. Never do we hear them cry out in pain as they traverse the landscape but often we are shown new cuts and sores that need cleaning. It begs the question, shouldn't every child be able to walk without worry of injuring their feet? This pounds repeatedly in my head. The reality is that an injured foot prevents these kids from doing their work. It equals loss of wages, loss of meals and other basic necessities. The reality is that an injured foot is an opportunity for infection in an environment made of waste. The reality is that walking without sandals is one of the most obvious indicators of their socioeconomic status, opening them up for mistreatment and isolation. One pair of sandals equals love, opportunity and protection. One pair of sandals to each child, 43 pairs of feet measured already, one big goal. November is officially the month that Lakhtokia will go barefoot free.


34 New Smiles in Mount Frere, South Africa!

What a quick week it was in South Africa. It hit me very last minute that I was finally and unexpectedly heading to a continent I had been literally dreaming of!! As the plane descended into Johannesburg I could see the red earth I had read so frequently about and got filled with such excitement. Next I headed to the Eastern Cape to meet up with the rest of the mission team and off we headed on the five hour drive down to Mount Frere! The mission team was awesome, a small group that knew each other very well so I was a bit nervous at first but eventually I felt very comfortable and enjoyed the week so much! The hospital we were at was large and beautiful, well maintained and better than some state hospitals I have seen in the U.S. Screening was a breeze, there were quite a few patients there for palate surgeries who had already had their lips repaired previously and their results were beautiful. Then started 2 1/2 days of surgery. They were long days but managed to go by too quickly. I looked forward to every time I got to walk with a patient down to the post-operative ward because the room was just full of happiness. Sometimes I would arrive and the other families would cheer or shout in excitement for the newly operated child, there was always laughter and a sense of community despite the fact that the patients came from 3 different countries. There were three older boys that kept getting in tickle fights with me, they would play jokes on me, paint faces, and generally get up to mischief! It was such a fun few days, I found myself dragging my feet when it was time to leave. Even sitting here now it feels like a dream, it all came up and passed by so quickly! 

I am back to reality in India after having a weird flight home in which I responded to a medical emergency as we were landing and I lost my itouch in the process! No more instagram, text messaging, or fun things like that for me. 

How we weigh babies :)

The whole town of Mount Frere

Quite a luxurious recovery room!

Post-Op ward

Creepy park on the beach

Indian Ocean in Durban, South Africa

Rainbow over Durban


To South Africa, With Love

A bit over a week ago I was asked if I could attend a mission to Mount Frere, South Africa to fill in an urgent need for a recovery room nurse. I excitedly said yes and today I am already headed out for the mission. This is all so unexpected and it will be a very quick trip, I feel like I haven't even had time to mentally prepare. I am excited beyond belief and have been having really vivid dreams of being in Africa on a mission for the last year, so it feel s surreal as an actual trip to Africa has been nowhere on my radar! 

I am bringing nothing but a back pack, scrubs, a bit of clothing, a camera and hospital gear so things are going to be quiet for the next week. My plan is to fully focus on the mission at hand and disconnect from everything else. Mount Frere is sounding like it will be a small, fairly remote town though the hospital is described as wonderful and big! I still remember so clearly the excitement I felt almost exactly 2 years ago when I found out I would be going to Guwahati on my very first mission. I literally jumped up and down on my bed and cried, I was so beside myself with happiness. Little did know how the course of my life would change so purposefully (hindsight is 20/20.) I still get that excitement before every mission knowing what an incredible opportunity is being presented, not for me or the team but more importantly for the patients who may never have received these life changing surgeries otherwise. I believe so much in this organization and what it offers, how much it means and how much it can change someones life. 

As a testament to just that, this past week a young boy around the age of 13 travelled hours and hours  from their village to Guwahati with his younger brother who has a cleft palate. They came only with the village health worker, who is responsible for overseeing the whole group of patients from that trip (usually the groups are around 30 in size). No mother, no father, no grandparent or aunt or uncle. For some reason or another no adult was able to attend. Just the two brothers. Can you imagine traveling so far at such a young age, hoping to give your little brother a chance for change? The whole time he cared so lovingly for him. He rocked him in the recovery room right after surgery, fed him milk out of a syringe in the ward, and guided him around gently the whole week. The love exuding from him far exceeded what is normal for his age. What would it feel like to know you have to step up to bat in order to give your sibling a chance at a normal life? How far would you travel? What responsibility would you be willing to take on if you felt this surgical center was the only hope? Now take all of that, and think about having that opportunity only once in a year, or even less. No surgical center within a reachable distance. This could be someones only chance so here is to an amazing mission, thousands of miles and 25 new smiles.


Soap Making with The Nourish Collective

Have you ever met someone that after a few days together, you feel you've known for a lifetime? Well, I met a nurse on the mission in Silchar whom is exactly that! I knew of Melissa before meeting her from my flat mate so I was rather excited to finally get to know her! She is a part of a non-profit called The Nourish Collective and her project within the organization is teaching woman how to make soap for a trade. She has worked to create a whole soap making manual, community assessments, hand hygiene education and has traveled to a few different countries to teach soap making. She wasn't originally planning to come to Guwahati after the mission but her original plans got cancelled last minute, so her visit here was pretty much written in the stars. I was so excited to have her and two other friends from the mission over; to show them the surgical center, where I live but most of all the children! We trialed 3 different batches of soap and hope to some day in the near future collaborate to teach the older girls and young woman in Lakhtokia how to make soap for a small business!!

Can I just say that soap making is not easy, and it takes a huge understanding of oils, chemistry, local availability of products to make a good recipe, so there is a lot to learn. We made the first batch in my flat by using measuring cups instead of a scale and it did not work out so well! The soap is very brittle and powdery so I will probably use it as laundry detergent or for dishes if it doesn't turn out too oily. We reassessed after the first batch, and even convinced a local shop keeper to allow us to weigh the oils and lye on his scale. There was quite a crowd as we stood there for half an hour weighing it all out :) The next day we made batches 2 and 3 and I think we have a winner! It still has to cure for another 2 weeks but I just cut them into bars and it is looking pretty promising. I tested each ones suds-ability and was impressed with it!

More importantly, Melissa brought lots of soap from home (she holds the record for making the largest bar of soap in the world) and the kids are using it to wash their hands before eating on Sundays! They loved their 'sappon' and clean water this past weekend. They were all very cooperative and washed up first before getting in line for food then came back for another washing after eating. I love being able to incorporate hand hygiene into Sundays!

Here is to hoping for many future collaborations between Melissa/ The Nourish Collective which may or may not involve attempting to convince her to move here for a few months :)


The Mama Earth Project

I just wanted to take a minute to say thank you to the ladies over at The Mama Earth Project for making Pratyasha Foundation their Autumnal cause! The project is a collective of a few different amazing women who contribute articles on a range of topics. True to the name, the project is very down to earth and focuses on children/family/motherhood but not in a way that isolates those of us who do not fall into those categories :) I am going to be honest, there is something about visiting their page that makes me feel warm and comfy like curling up with a good read on a Fall day. Thank you to Elisabeth and all of the women over at Mama Earth for spreading the word about the kids over here, it means the world to us.


Honey Come Home

Never more than now has it felt more important to show love to the community of Lakhtokia...

Arriving home last week I made my way to the slum as quickly as possible expecting to see the homes rebuilt and all of the kids back in place. Instead I was greeted with glowing embers and fresh ash of the continued burning of the homes. Barb wire had been placed all along the perimeters of the community as the governments attempt to prevent rebuilding. My stomach dropped and twisted and my heart shattered into about one million tiny pieces at the sight of all of this.

I don't understand

I don't.

I can't.

In the most respectful way possible, I literally don't understand how this has been formulated as the solution to overpopulation and extreme poverty. To an economy that feels as if it could buckle under the weight of its people. There was most certainly a group of executives that gathered and decided to raze these homes and place barb wire. To push these families under the rug or sweep them aside. To make the unwanted feel even more unwanted, and I didn't think that was possible.

World, wake-up... this is not the answer! I will be the first to admit that I don't know what is but its been nearly a year since our lives have become intertwined down in the slum and any progress we have made has been due to unfaltering love and consistency. So maybe I do understand, how easy it is to make a decision when you don't know the very people it will effect. But I know them, and you reading this, you do. Every one of those children has a face to me, a voice, a name. We see the differences in them when their already unstable environment just gets spun upside down. Every one of them struggles already to survive, to be fed to be safe. Not a single one of them asked to be born into this. Never have they done something to solicit their very basic homes to be taken from them... never. I would beg and plead if I met the people who decide to raze the slums, beg them to know the children like we know. To step in with us on just one Sunday. Hold one hand, pass one meal. Play one game. I know that if they did that, they would begin to see how much opportunity there is in each individual child. How much promise there is in this community that is just learning how much the world can love them. They would see how we use their barb wire fence to create a safe haven for passing the meals and spending time with the kids. That no matter how much these families are told they don't matter, we will stand up and say "you do." 

I just want for all of my babies to come home, to continue to bask in the glory of Sunday meals and the consistency that comes with it. To know that we have not forgotten them, we have not asked them to leave. That still, all these months later, they do not have to ask us for our love. That is given freely and without strings or expectations. There is no more time to sit aside in inaction. There is no better opportunity than now to love the unloved with us, in whatever way you know how. 


99 Smiles in Silchar

We had an incredible mission in Silchar, Assam, India last week. I started by heading out there early to teach a CPR class and the mission was pretty non-stop from there on out. Silchar is a much smaller town compared to Guwahati and even though the surgical center I work at receives patients from this area, there were still tons of patients there! We screened something like 190 kids and adults and were able to perform 99 surgeries in 5 1/2 days! It was an international mission and I met so many amazing people, whom I hope to keep in contact with for a long time to come. It is so inspiring to me to be surrounded by volunteers who come from every corner of the world, give up their vacation time, personal time and work in crazy weather/conditions for these 99 kids. The heat index was 127-148... yes that's right, 148. There was a point on the first day of surgery that I was certain we would have to stop. I had never experienced heat & humidity to that degree!! The solution was more fans and praying for rain! Both came and the rest of the week was better from there.

This girl was one of the last five patients, she couldn't stop smiling!

 This man guarded the entrance to the OR area, he held a rather threatening stick. I'm thankful I didn't get whacked with it! 

 Our best attempts at making a 'serious' face

 The sweetest little lady! 

All photos compliments of Gary Wing Lee