In February, two Greenwich families went on a medical mission to Bogota, Colombia with Operation Smile. Last week, we featured Greenwich High School senior Julia Merrill's interview, this week we asked her dad -- John Merrill the same questions about his experience, hope you enjoy it.
The Merrill Family at the Operation Smile Clinic in Colombia
1) What was the most interesting thing you learned about Colombia? Did anything surprise you?
The perceived risk in Colombia seems to be much higher that the actual risk. Bogota is a sophisticated city with many beautiful parts to it. I was struck how different - more advanced, cosmopolitan and cleaner - it was from Quito. The extent to which the mountains shoot up from the city is truly striking, and conversely the lush vegetation that seems to creep down from the mountains into the city is beautiful and unexpected. The people we met were so warm and welcoming, especially at Operacion Sonrisa.
2) Did you try any new food? Any restaurants you would recommend or excursions?
The Colombian cuisine is sneaky good. The names of the exact dishes escape me but go for them all. As for excursions, the Botero museum can't be missed and a trip outside of the city is a must to get a sense of the Andes not to mention how sprawling Bogota is. We went north of the city and the villages and scenery gave a richer sense of Colombia.
3) Did you learn anything new about Operation Smile and if yes, what was it?
I thought Operation Smile was all about "missions" when in fact there are, like in Colombia, full-time, fully staffed clinics that are staffed by locals. The staff at Operacion Sonrisa are truly incredible folks --- real pros, so dedicated and warm to visitors and patients alike. Another thing that struck me was that our visit was not particularly staged or scripted. Rather, we were simply integrated into the daily routines of the clinic and its work with patients. The free-form, part of the daily-routine nature of our participation resulted in a connected, organic experience.
4) Was there any one experience you would like to share?
When you visit the clinic, the routine is spend time with patients and their families as well as rotate visiting the various specialists as they meet with patients. The time with the specialists in their consultations with patients as first feels intrusive, especially as the clinic staff oscillate between speaking in Spanish with the patients and then English with US visitors. To my surprise the 'format' quickly becomes quite natural and normal because the patients and doctors alike don't miss a beat or feel imposed upon or on show. Everyone involved (even guests) just seem focused on good medical outcomes.
One specific experience at the clinic, though, definitely stands out. When I went to sit with the social worker, I joined her in a consultation with a woman who's small son had a cleft lip and palate. The other was alone at the clinic with her son, having traveled on an overnight bus from her mountain village. She had spent half of her monthly wages to make the trip and was returning home that same evening on another overnight bus because she works 6 days week. The social worker and the woman spoke openly of aspects affecting the child and his condition - medical treatment, language development, and homelife. I was fully apart of the poignant conversation. The social worker elegantly and effectively shared tips and gave the single-mom encouragement. The coaching was clear yet offered warmly and with compassion. I was in awe of the social worker and the mother - the former's deft handling of the situation and the latter's focus, commitment and persistence to doing the very best for her son. Watching there two unassuming woman tackle life's challenges was inspiring and humbling.
5) Now that you are back, how has attending a medical mission impacting your life?
Perspective, perspective, perspective....any challenges we have are minor compare to many others around the world. Columbia is not only safe to travel to, it's a fun and enchanting destination. Our healthcare system could learn some lessons from the Operaction Sonrisa clinic. Our citizens could learn a lot about the good fortune we have in the US.