Dispatches from the Orient
For thousands of years, travelers have followed the Silk Road across the Gobi Desert into China's interior, passing through the City of Gold - Lanzhou - in the geographical heart of China.
Last week, a very different expedition left Mississauga for the same destination, but a unique reason, the Smile China medical mission.
Smile China has a simple mission - to put a smile back on the faces of children born with facial deformities.
Smile China was borne of simple beginnings. It started with Dr Joseph Wong, a Mississauga facial plastic surgeon, based out of Credit Valley Hospital (CVH).
During previous trips to remote areas of China, Wong noticed infants, children and adults with cleft palate and cleft lip conditions.
In Canada, the repair of this congenital deformity, a multidisciplinary treatment involving surgeons, speech pathologists, orthodontists and others, happens automatically during infancy.
But, in many places around the world, children from poorer families in remote regions refused treatment for financial reasons or lack of local expertise.
What started as a personal effort by Wong has grown over the years into a community-supported campaign. Smile China's team includes Wong, assisted by Dr. Toni Zhong, a second-year resident at the University of Western Ontario, CVH operating room nurses Brenda Barnes and Cecilia Cheng, Credit Valley Hospital Foundation president Norma Bandler, CVH audiovisual experts Arthur Uyeyama and Kevin Dimitroff, and me, Rob Beintema, along to cover the story.
The Canadian contingent was joined in Vancouver by Wong's American associates Dr. Wayne Larabee Jr., Dr. Jonathan Sykes and Dr. Travis Tollfson, all eminent facial plastic and reconstructive surgeons, and child psychologist Kelly Mena.
Twenty-four hours after leaving Mississauga, we arrived at our final destination, Lanzhou, in the province of Gansu, China.
Local hospital staff were on hand to welcome us, loaded luggage and medical supplies into an ambulance and, with lights flashing and the occasional wail of the siren, led the bus towards Lanzhou.
Lanzhou straddles the Yellow River, spreading to the edges of the desert mountains, amid the background buzz of any oriental city - constant motion and noise, squealing of truck brakes, chorus of honking horns, merchants hawking their wares and advertisements squawking over loudspeakers. The air is acrid with a gunpowdery, after-the-fireworks taste.
We arrive at the local hospital and the doctors begin their work. Prior to our arrival, the hospital screened 100 requests, cleared sixty patients for surgery and planned, realistically, for about 46 actual operations.
As we walk down the hallway towards the wing where parents and their children have been admitted, we pass by a heart-wrenching group of other parents and children who won't be helped this year. They stay and wait, hoping for a miracle, following us with their eyes, warily watching every move, smiling and grinning nervously back at us.
Doctors move from room to room, consulting, checking, looking into mouths with flashlights.
Then the surgeries begin, doctors work singly or in teams in three operating rooms, overcoming the initial clumsiness and getting used to training differences and cross-cultural approaches.
But the first six operations go smoothly and, as the children are rolled back into their rooms, they're swamped by their families.
Parents still waiting for their own children's turn come forward to stare at the returning patients, as if looking for hope for their own children's future.
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Smile China is a registered Canadian charitable organization
Registered charity No. 88924 5809 RR0001
54 Redlea Avenue
"It may only be a cleft repair, but it restores a child's life."
"It may only be a smile, but its one filled with hope and dignity."