Day in the Life of John


Today was an incredible day.  I woke up early, walked out to a beautiful breakfast and greeted the last set of volunteers arriving from the airport. Among them were Perry Liu and Payam Jerrahnejad, two accomplished plastic surgeons exhausted from traveling.  I knew that six kids from the far away agricultural town of Puno would be coming to the hotel to see them sometime today.  One of the six is a shepherd’s daughter.  Three were scared to go into the elevator as they had never been in one before.  And none had flown in a plane before they were sponsored to come to Ayacucho to have surgery to repair their cleft lips and palates at the mission. 

Just as Perry and Payam were putting their bags down in the hotel’s courtyard, all six kids came in with their parents, ready to be seen.  Three had already completed their surgeries the week before with other mission doctors, and the other three were being evaluated to determine the best procedure for them.  As the surgeons examined them with care, we heard sad stories like one of the kids being called “devil child” back in the village because of his appearance.  The work the surgeons set out to do is so important on multiple levels.

The kids were as cute as you can imagine.  The ones that were old enough to walk were decked out in sneakers and ball caps and priceless smiles.  The babies were resting comfortably in the folds of the their mothers scarves.  We’ll be able to address many of their problems this week, but most of the kids will need to have numerous additional procedures over the years to take care of everything.  We have already identified the other experts we will bring in to continue their treatment next year.

One of the moms broke down in tears at the thought of the many years of operations and care that lie ahead, both for the cleft and for a serious gastrointestinal defect we discovered during the exam.  Our Nursing Director Loretta sat with her and just listened, reassuring her that she is not alone and that her beautiful daughter will be fine.  I called up to Candy, a social worker who has been with us for years.  She had finally gotten to sleep after traveling through the night to the mission, but she and her translator Pamela sprang out of bed to meet with the mom and help talk through her concerns.  Throughout the hotel courtyard, I noticed a change on the faces of the other volunteers as they felt the gravity of the conversation from a distance.  I think even though they did not hear the details being discussed, they were moved with compassion for this family, and felt assured that they were in the right place to make a difference for many others like them.  The surgeons developed a plan that gave the mom some reassurance, and scheduled her first procedure for Monday. 

The afternoon flew by as we met and planned and prepared for the week ahead when we will see over 1000 more patients.  Then just before dinner, a tired father with his 3-year-old boy, Leandro, came walking into the hotel courtyard.  The boy was decked out in a ballcap and sneakers just like the others, had a significant cleft palate like the others, but came from a different town more than 8 hours away.  We had seen him the week before, and scheduled him for surgery this Monday.  Although we had offered them lodging last week, they needed to return home for the weekend.  I was so pleased to see that they returned.  We gave them something to eat, and I had the pleasure of carrying Leandro on my shoulders as we walked them to their hotel.  Omar and Justin came with us, and helped describe the surgeons’ pre-op instructions.  

The poor boy was worn out, and we could hardly get a grin out of him on the walk.  But when we got to the hotel to check them in, a grey and white kitten rushed through the lobby, and Leandro pointed and squealed with laughter.  He laughed quite a lot like my 10-month-old Wyatt, who before I know it will be just as big as Leandro.  That laugh really moved my vantage point from an outsider trying to help into the perspective of his father.  When we finish this week, he will have traveled more than 32 hours in total, sacrificed several days of paid work with his family on the tightest of margins, and put his boy’s well-being in the hands of strangers just for the chance to make Leandro's life better.  I understood his motivation completely, but was humbled by his courage to make this all happen.  I pray that I can be such a good father to Wyatt.   

I’ve been doing this mission since 2003, but the feelings never repeat themselves.  As I change and as the community changes, my time in Ayacucho enriches me in more new ways than I could ever repay.

- John Billimek