So, you’re intrigued with the idea of going overseas to help people, but you’re not sure what to do or what organization to do it with. Here’s the hard sell on why you should choose to work with Operation of Hope, and see if you’re a good match for the fantastic people that donate their time, energy, and money.

1. Exotic Locations

Most places in the world that need doctors, nurses, therapists, and translators, are in remote, hard to access areas. Places that you’ve never heard of, with languages that you probably don’t speak. Couple that with the multiple airports and bus trips you need to get somewhere, and you’ll be in places that no tourists or foreigners ever go to. To me, that’s interesting and fun. It’s always great to find places that are not Google mapped out, and that have no Foursquare check ins, and to be able to discover that no hashtags have been generated for goods and services on Instagram- yet.

2. Flexibility Is A Virtue

On Operation of Hope, we really bring pretty much every essential we need to do a successful operation. The BEIT-Cure Hospital in Blantyre, Malawi, is very well stocked. I am truly fortunate to work with such a wonderful crew of professionals that have pretty much everything I need to do a successful operation.

However, when seeing patients, you never know what you have to do as a plastic surgeon. With my knowledge, along with internet access and textbooks, I have to think and plan more for my patients, which makes me a better surgeon.

The biggest example this trip was operating on adults for cleft lip repair. Since teenagers and adults vary in size, you can’t use the common measurements to repair cleft lip issues that exist in infants. So, you use general plastic surgery principles, repeat measurements on the adult lip, and plan for the repair but in a bigger tissue area, with soft tissue that is not as flexible and pliable. I made it work, but it requires some extra thinking and planning and flexibility to do the best job possible for my patients in Malawi.

3. REALLY getting to Know People

You’re traveling with friends and strangers for hours. You share meals with them. You’re in the operating room with them. So yes, you will get to know them, and they will get to know you, VERY WELL.

This is a good thing, and not a bad thing. With the internet, it’s easy to IM/ email/ blog post/ do something that does not require actual human interaction, like talking to someone face-to-face or hugging a patient. Operation of Hope is unique, in that everyone on the team cares about each other, and each patient.

Of course, you will get to know yourself better as well- the good and the bad bits. If you have any self-reflection, you’ll be able to see yourself with more clarity and see yourself become a more patient, generous person.

Don’t worry, there are no Jungian psychoanalytic sessions on these trips, although I may sound like a new age guru sometimes……

4. You’re Not a Tourist – You Are a Guest

You become a guest to a hospital and a community that desperately needs your services. You realize that when you meet people at the hospital, or talk to them, that most people are the same, with some cultural differences. When you go out on the streets and go to eat or shop, you can probably go with people from the hospital or from the hotel, and get to really know the owners of the stores and restaurants.

Without our wonderful hospital friends in Blantyre, as well as the owner of our hotel in Blantyre, we never would have found the following things in Malawi:

  • The best places to shop for jewelry, handicrafts, and other artisan objects directly from the artists
  • Organic local Italian food at Hostaria, with all dishes made from scratch
  • Delicious Indian food
  • Tours of Open Arms Malawi, a great place to have fun with kids
  • Tours of the local game parks and nature reserves, with discounts on admission
  • True smiles and hugs of warmth and friendship

5. Learn Too Much About Macro and Micro Economics

Without sounding too much like the UN, you learn about per capita GDP, birth rates, mortality rates, and other fun filled macroeconomic facts about the countries you visit. Also, you get to know the conversion rates in the local currency, how to haggle, the safest places to drink water or eat salad, and a myriad of other microeoncomic factoids that guidebooks can’t really go into. Your ability to actually immerse yourself in the local culture and see things that the average tourist or even average Malawi citizen is pretty cool.

6. Realize We Are Better Off in the USA

You start to realize that you live in the most affluent country in the most affluent period of history in the world. Ever.

Running water? Hot water? Wi-fi that actually works most of the time? A car? A bus that works? Paved streets? Sports? Cheap food? A clean bed? The list is endless, but you get the point- we’re spoiled in the West and in the USA, and a lot of difficult situations in the US would be a minor issue in Malawi.

And did I really miss cable TV, the latest updates in the Wall Street Journal, what’s going on in US sports? Not really.

7. Bore Your Friends About Diseases

Yes, travel to exotic countries may mean that you may be exposed to diseases we don’t have in the US and in the industrialized First World. However, most volunteers are health care workers, so you’ve probably already been vaccinated and tested up the wazoo for the normal things.

As a plastic surgeon, it’s pretty unreal that I’ve been vaccinated for pretty much everything possible, thanks to my med school and surgical training, and I’m constantly being monitored for TB and other things, thanks to Federal and State regulations. If you’re a nurse or therapist, you probably are too.

Also, many disease overseas can be avoided. You can read up on them, take the necessary precautions, and torture your friends about the unusual names, the best treatment choices for malaria, gross out your friends about parasites, and generally be an uninvited guest at future dinner parties.

8. Realize that Travel is a Small Price to Pay

Dude/ Dudette, I always dread flying for 25-26 hours, just in an airplane, and NOT including stopovers, to get from San Francisco to Blantyre. However, once the trip is over, I realize that minor travel discomfort is a small price to pay to help another person, to gain new extended family members, to have the experience to truly make a difference in a child’s life and a family’s life, and to – well, I’ll probably start crying on this digital screen if I continue.

Plus, duty free shopping can be pretty good during layovers.

9. Short-er Trips

Many medical missions require pretty long time commitments, like 1-12 months. Operation of Hope is very surgically oriented, so the time commitment is shorter, usually about 10-14 days. Of course, since you’re in an exotic location anyway, you could take a couple of days of vacation before or after your surgical trip to see your destination with your new found friends.

Many locations in the middle of nowhere can be pretty cool and cheap to visit. Malawi is obviously fairly expensive to get to. However, once you’re in Malawi, many things are dirt cheap. Great meals are $5-8 per meal- including wine, multiple courses, and dessert. Game Preserves and hotels are inexpensive, by US and Western standards. Handicrafts and jewelry from the source are very inexpensive. Feeling safe, because you’re somewhere with your friends from Operation of Hope AND your new friends from the hospital, is pretty priceless, and difficult to replicate, even with tour guides.

10. You Really Bond With Your Patients

In the US, of course I care and other health care workers care about patients. However, in Malawi, everyone kicks it up a notch.

I’m not certain that when I do a successful procedure in the US, EVEYRONE hugs the patient and takes group photos. Like, I don’t think the patient hugs the nurse/ janitor/ therapist/ dietician/ hospital pastor/ hospital administrator, etc.

In Malawi, on the last day of rounds, EVERY patient gave us hugs and handshakes to EVERYONE on the surgical team and hospital team, and INSISTED on group photos. It’s very touching, and that did make me cry.

The most sublime moment for me was seeing one of my patients with a craniofacial problem. I did a small procedure on his nose, so that it is more symmetric. I can’t do anything about his skull until we raise tons of money to get his procedure done in Johannesburg. Considering he’s 16 years old and needs about $100,000 for the procedure, there will unfortunately be little chance that he gets this procedure.

However, through a translator, he told the entire Operation of Hope team around his bed that he was so happy to meet us. He told us that in his village, he is shunned, and he has to hide for free of being verbally abused, bullied, and attacked. He only comes out of his hut at dusk and at night. His parents love him, and do everything possible to help him out.

He told us that the week he was in the hospital at Blantyre, that he felt normal. No one at the hospital treated him differently, and he could see the love and concern from the BEIT-Cure Hospital staff as well as the team on Operation of Hope. I feel badly that I can’t fix his skull- yet- but that he knows that we are all working to fix it someday.

So, if you want to help people, with the added bonus of becoming a more insightful person who changes for the better, I would unconditionally recommend joining Operation of Hope for a future trip.

Dr. Roy Kim

Dr. Roy Kim is a Diplomate of the American Board of Plastic Surgery. Dr. Kim is a member of the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, The American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, and the California Society of Plastic Surgeons. His pursuit of technical excellence has earned him the respect of colleagues and applause from his patients. Dr. Kim holds an undergraduate degree from Georgetown University, an MD from the University of Pittsburgh and has performed general surgery residency at University of Chicago Medical School as well as a Plastic Surgery residency at Wayne State University before moving to San Francisco.


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