Uniting a Team

(May 14, 2015)

Most of the volunteers arrived in the middle of the night last night. Airport pickups had me crawling into bed after 2am. It’s all beginning. It is all about to start. The pieces of a successful mission are starting to fall into place.

As we waited for the volunteers to arrive, we guessed who was with Operation Smile. Did they fit the picture we had painted in our head? Did they look like a plastic surgeon? Would I know if they were a nurse? Voices I have become familiar with over the phone became welcoming faces.

Every single volunteer that got of the plane followed the same pattern – recognition that we were waiting for them, realizing I am Kristy, and a huge embrace. No one shook hands. No one awkwardly introduced themselves. We were instantly a family united in Lima.

Day 1 on our mission agenda included a tour of the hospital, reviewing hospital protocol and a team meeting. As we sat on the bus anticipating the one hour drive north along the Pacific coast, our Program Coordinator made an announcement. The hospital tour was cancelled. There was a protest at the hospital that made it unsafe for our visit. Our new destination was the historic district of Lima. We were going to tour a cathedral and catacombs.


The entire day I was amazed by how quickly everyone became friends. We were strangers from over 10 different countries. We spoke different languages. We have different backgrounds. Our differences never mattered. We are all a family connected and united by our common goal to bring hope to families.

Standing outside the Covent of San Francisco, I took a few moments to take it all in. I am in Lima. I am on a medical mission with Operation Smile. Tomorrow we will meet families and children who hope to get surgery, but today we have the chance to embrace this community. While we all learn to love each other more deeply, we get to stand in the middle of a church built in 1535. We get to stand in a library that was once considered the most important library in the South America that dates back to the 17th century and holds 25,000 books. We get to stand in the church’s choir. The pipe organ was built in 1901 and has more than 1000 pipes. We get to walk through the catacombs that is the burial ground to more than three centuries of priests, members of the brotherhood, and citizens of Lima. Surround by over 500 years of history, my presence in the world seems like only a small ripple.

While the Covent of San Francisco made me feel small, there is no denying there is importance in the ripples that Operation Smile will make in the lives of the families we can treat. We all know this. We all know that there is nothing more important than the children we are in Peru to treat.

In this moment, in the historic district of Lima, I know I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be. I’m surrounded by the people I’m supposed to meet. I am where I belong. We are were we belong. We are so much stronger when we are united. Each of us bring our own unique gift to the mission and as a result families can continue to dream for their children.

My heart is so incredibly happy.

Exploring Mira Flores

(May 13, 2015)

Volunteers begin to arrive tonight around 5:30pm. After confirming a few details, the afternoon belonged to me. With no destination in mind, I wandered up and down the streets of Mira Flores, a district in Lima. The air is filled with a surprisingly comforting smell – an odd mixture of salt water and exhaust fumes. The sounds of car horns echo off the buildings. This district in Lima is an amazing blend of city life and beach living.

As I wander up and down the streets, I accept the fact that I’m noticeably a tourist. My eyes are wide as I try to take it all in. I look up and down. My eyes dart to the left and right. I am still not comfortable dodging traffic as I make my way across the busy intersections. I am okay with the label of tourists. I am content trying to absorb the energy of the city.

As I wander I notice a woman handing out balloons to children who walk by. A boy takes one and continues to hit his mom’s backside for the rest of their journey. The mom is unphased by his behavior. It comes with the territory of having a toddler. Chet would approve, and I suspect I’d be unphased too. Another boy walks by with an Angry Birds t-shirt that Cole used to wear. I miss my boys. A man sitting outside eating lunch reminds me so much of my father-in-law I almost ask to take his photo. I see my father-in-law in so many people since we lost him two years ago. A couple walking down the street holding hands makes me wish Christian was with me even if he doesn’t enjoy city life. Everywhere I look, I see something familiar in this city that is still foreign to me.

In this foreign city, I’m finding my connection. I’m finding my comfort in my morning run along a different boardwalk and a different ocean. I see people who remind me of home. Even thought I’m 3351 miles from home, I still find things that feel familiar.

Perhaps that is what this journey, every journey is about. It is about finding comfort. It is about finding the familiar. It is about finding your tribe. It is about connecting to people and life.

I’ve been here for less than 24 hours, and I already see how important it is to be connected. Tonight the volunteers arrive. We are already connected though our passion and our commitment to help. On Friday, patient screening begins. The families we will meet are just another version of ourselves – familiar faces living similar lives in a country that is foreign to me. We are all doing the best we can with our lives – separated by 3351 miles in daily life but always connected.

To Peru

(May 12, 2015)

On May 12, 2014, I started a new chapter in my life. I walked through the front doors of Operation Smile’s Global Headquarters ready to take ownership of my new job: my own personal dream job. I was ready to thrive. Exactly one year ago I began this journey. Today, May 12, 2015, I am sitting on a plane heading to Lima, Peru to participate in my first medical mission.

“She’s seeing things.

She is hearing things.

She’s so sensitive.

Read: She’s irrational.

And this I have internalized. Who am I to trust my body, my senses, my instincts? Who am I to know how to raise my child without consulting parenting books and up-to-date rearing studies? Who am I to try to find God outside of an institutionally approved, fully vetted doctrine? Who am I to think I can pursue impractical dreams? Who am I to be taken seriously? Who am I to think I am capable and worthy? Who am I…who am I?” ~Leigh Ann Henion

This has been my internal dialogue for much of my life. I’ve focused on how I’m not enough – not enough of a wife, not enough of a mother, not enough of a dreamer. I’ve never trusted myself.

As I boarded this plane, tears rolled down my face. Not sure the root of my tears – part homesick and part inspired – I am certain my tears come from a place of gratitude.

I’ve been talking about myself a lot lately. I’ve focused on how this is my dream coming true, but the truth is that this has nothing to do with me at all. It is not about me being enough or capable or worthy. It isn’t about who I am. It is about who they are. It is about the patients we will treat in Peru. It is about the mother who can continue to dream for her child. It is about the father who can exhale knowing his child will be safe and healthy. It is the story of the parents where my heart feels connected.

I have two healthy boys. We have access to safe medical treatment anytime we need it. I am grateful.

This journey is about bringing hope to these communities. It is about healing. I haven’t even touched down in Lima yet, and my heart is already transforming. My old dialogue – Am I enough? Who am I? – is fighting to make its way into this journey. Who am I to think I am worthy? Who am I to think I deserve this dream? By the time this plane touches down in Lima that dialogue is no longer welcome. This isn’t my story.

“It is showing me that I am part of a divine completion, and knowing this somehow makes me feel whole. It is in the spirit of Aloha, oneness, that I intuit divinity. We do not live outside or inside of nature. We are nature. We are not separate from each other – our fates are intertwined, always.” ~Leigh Ann Henion

This journey is about connection. It is about community. It is about hope. It is about spreading love and receiving it – unapologetically and whole heartedly. This is about seeing that fate is always intertwined.

Four more hours until Lima…..

The coastline welcomed me

In the Process

I had no intention of running the Shamrock half marathon this year. I was planning to be on a work trip to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. I thought I’d be in the heart of Africa working with patients doing something my heart loves. Plans changed. When my own personal safety came into question, the heart of my family became my priority. These very deserving patients will get treatment even if I’m not there, and my boys don’t have to worry about my safety.

There’s a saying floating around in this world that joy is found in the process not in the finish line. While I won’t be traveling to the DRC, a shift changed inside of me by working on this project. The story of these patients is so closely entwined with my heart. Who I am as a person and the beat of my heart directly connects me to their story. I rediscovered a passion inside of me over the past few months. I’ve found confidence in my own voice and in my own story. I’ve been using my voice to capture my story on paper. I’ve revisited places of shame and guilt that existed within me, and I conquered those doubts. I wanted more than anything to bring strength to these patients. I wanted to bring compassion and courage. In order to bring it to them, I had to find it for myself.

This process has changed me. In some ways it’s been subtle. In other ways it’s been intrusive. Rearranging the components of your soul is messy. It’s chaotic. While some parts have emerged, others have left with a fight. There have been days I’ve felt emotionally unstable as I’ve struggled through this transition: old doubts and insecurities struggling to hold on while new-found strength and courage fought to take over.

Through all this change the one place I’ve been able to sort through all my thoughts is in my running shoes. I’ve worked through it all, celebrated it all, and finished every run feeling like a polished version of my self. Shamrock race weekend feels like the perfect place to shine. This year I’ll be running the Shamrock half marathon instead of traveling to Africa, but I’ll be carrying this entire process with me. The finish line isn’t the one I anticipated, but the process has been the same.

I’ll be running with these patients close to my heart. I’ll be running with the courage and determination I hoped to bring to them. The best way I can honor them and myself is to show up to my life with my heart exposed filled with strength and courage.

When I do board a plane this spring for a different mission site, my heart is going to have nothing to give but love that is rooted in my own strength. My foundation will be built on strength and courage.

 

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Collide

“I would say that the thrust of my life has been initially about getting free, and then realizing that my freedom is not independent of everybody else. Then I am arriving at that circle where one works on oneself as a gift to other people so that one doesn’t create more suffering. I help people as a work on myself and I work on myself to help people.” ~Ram Dass

Last Friday after a week-long global planning conference that I organized and attended for Operation Smile, Christian and I drove to Operation Smile’s founders’ home for a final dinner celebration. As we drove, the pattern of turns was familiar. It was a well-worn path in my memory: to the bridge, to the second bridge, to the fork in the road, to the dead-end. The road to their house was my running route in college. Nearly every day I ran by their house.

I remember the moment well, the moment I abandoned myself during my junior year of college. I wanted nothing more than to be free: free from my past, free from my story, free from the life I had lived up until that point. I wanted to rid myself everything and everyone. I just wanted to be free.

I used to wish I could go back to the moment. I used to wish I could choose differently. I use to wonder what would my life look like if I chose a different path. What if I didn’t get married my senior year? What if I didn’t move to Alabama? What if I didn’t have a baby at 24? What if I could go back and instill all of the lessons I’ve learned since than inside my heart and inside my head. The what ifs have all dissolved away. I no longer want to hold my twenty-one year old self closely. I know longer wish I could whisper in my own ear instilling the lessons I’ve learned in the fourteen years that have followed.

As we drove that familiar running route, I felt myself colliding with my past. I felt the desperation in each run during my final years in college. I felt the rush of independence I used to feel as a plowed down a path in quest of my own freedom. I felt it all, and as I pulled into the driveway and walked in the front door of a place that now feels like home, I held all those emotions close to my heart.

There are moments in life when I collided with myself. These magical moments happen when I’m living from my heart. It happens when who I am as a person is perfectly in sync with my actions. There are the big moments: falling in love and child-birth.  And there are small moments: finish lines, observing my children coming into their own, conversations with best friends, and work dinner celebrations.

This spring I’ll be boarding a plane with my passport in hand. An Operation Smile mission will be my final destination. When I used to ask myself “what-if” my mind always wandered down a road that lead to this place. Instead of whispering in the ear of my twenty-one year old self, I want to remind myself every single day to trust: to trust my choices, to trust my intentions, and to trust my heart. I’ve been on the right path the whole time: to the bridge, to the second bridge, to the fork in the road, to the dead-end. It’s been waiting for me all along.

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Understanding Need

I sit in front of my computer screen starring at medical companies and emails every single day. All of them are filled with potential, but on my side of the screen, I sit feeling needy. The information I need to make things happen doesn’t exist inside my head. I have to ask for help. The resources I need aren’t readily available to me. I have to ask for support. The people I need to reach are not defined. I have to search until I find the right person. My job at Operation Smile, an amazing organization that provides free surgeries to repair cleft lip, cleft palate, and other facial deformities for children around the globe, is to ask for Gifts in Kind. I ask companies to donate medical supplies so we don’t have to purchase them for our medical mission.

I have tunnel vision right now. We are spending thousands of dollars on acetaminophen for every mission. No one donates this simple drug. Bottles of Tylenol are in nearly every household in America. There has to be a way to find a donation. I know I can find the right company. While I researched acetaminophen, while I researched companies, and while I reached out to anyone willing to accept my call, I sat in my chair feeling desperate.

“I’m going to have to get used to feeling needy”

This is the thought that kept echoing in my head. Needy is not a comfortable place for me. Needy is not a character trait I strive to embody.

In the middle of a development conference, I sat in a small room with all my coworkers and our co-founder, Dr. Magee. Tears in my eyes and a lump in my throat is a normal part of my work day. Every single story touches my heart. As I whipped away a tear, a realization washed over my body.

“I am not needy. The children, the adults, the families, and the communities that need acetaminophen as a very small piece of what it takes to make a surgery a success, they are in need.”

I can’t perform the surgery that will fix a child’s life forever. I can’t teach them to speak years after most children have muttered their first words. I can’t provide them information on nutrition so their bodies can thrive. There is a lot I can’t do, but there is even more that I can do. I can carry their need for them. I can sit in my chair at work and turn that need into an honor. I have the privilege of asking. I have the privilege of bringing the mission of Operation Smile to corporations around our global. I get to connect these two worlds.

When I started to feel needy, I could feel myself shrinking. If continuous online searching and dozens of asks to unresponsive receivers could make me shrink in my desk chair, imagine living a life where you’re not accepted or received because of the way you look. That is a real need. When I was reminded that I was advocating for an authentic need of an individual, I sat up a little taller in my chair.

“Love by definition is self-sacrifice. Love is a decision to make someone else’s problem your own.” ~ Dr. Bill Magee

Every single day I love what I do. I love the children around the world that are kept hidden from their communities because of their cleft lip and cleft palate. I love the mothers, the fathers, the caregivers who sacrifice so much to give their child a chance at a normal life. I love every single person who makes this possible. What I do each day is an honor. I will find a company that also feels honored to provide acetaminophen to our patients around the world. I will ask and ask and ask again because this is a real need in our world.

This isn’t needy. This is love.

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