Down the Memory Lane – My First Mission - Mission Smile

It all began in December 2000 when Kathy Magee, Co-Founder of Operation Smile Inc., Norfolk, Virginia, USA, visited Manipal University at the invitation of Dr Ramdas M Pai, Chancellor, Manipal University. Dr Bill Magee and Kathy Magee had been introduced earlier to Dr Ramdas Pai by a common friend in Washington DC. In a way, this visit in December 2000 was a “fact-find” to explore the possibility of Operation Smile Inc., conducting their 1st Mission ever on Indian soil at Manipal. In early 2002, a team of 50 International Volunteers from more than a dozen countries arrived in the educational town of Manipal – a glorified village within a Panchayat with all the facilities of a bigger city. The visitors did their rounds of the facility within hours of landing in Manipal and were very impressed with what they saw. Here was a top-of-the-drawer operating facility in what was a little more than a village! Across the road from the hospital was a 4-star hotel where the team put up. The team was excited because not only could they go down for breakfast in their scrubs, but they could walk across a clean street with shoe covers straight into the building housing the Operation Theatre 250 metres away.

The screening was to begin the following day. Everything looked hunky-dory. Except for one small missing piece. The cargo! Tonnes of cargo was lying in the warehouse with not the faintest chance of getting past Mumbai Customs. Frantic calls were made on the evening before Screening by Dr Rashmi Taneja to an impressive list of who’s who in the Government of India. But to no avail. When everything seemed to be lost, I came up with a feeble suggestion. If the team leaders could let me know what exactly was needed, our Medical Superintendent would be happy to extend all possible assistance.

The night was young. Manipal University machinery started clicking, and overnight, permission was obtained to provide all the drugs and consumables from the Hospital Pharmacy. While screening was going on in all earnest the following day, the Anaesthesia Team of Manipal was busy setting up five tables in 2 Operating Rooms, each measuring about 500 square feet, with all that had been requested for by the visiting team. In addition, we offered that each table would have Anaesthesia and Surgery postgraduates to assist the visiting team, and our Anaesthesia Technicians and Biomedical Engineers would be available throughout the Mission. This Mission tested the readiness of Manipal University in general and the Anaesthesia Department in particular for any eventuality. What followed was four days of a 5-table mission where we completed 98 safe surgeries. Both the visitors and the hosts came out with flying colours!

In a lighter vein, this was one of the few mission sites where the team could catch up with their families and friends on e-mail in between cases right from the postoperative ward. A few volunteers came down with a bad tummy and were ‘admitted’ for receiving intravenous fluids alongside the children they had operated on. Some of the Anaesthesia Volunteers on the team had brought their own supplies of anaesthesia consumables that they preferred to use instead of what we supplied. The cost of all locally-supplied consumables was close to 1,50,000 INR. Manipal University waived off this amount as their contribution to the good cause.

As Chief of Anaesthesiology, my role in this Mission was that of a Local Coordinator to ensure that the international team had all that they needed to conduct a safe mission. With excellent Institutional support and a dedicated Anaesthesia Department that came alive when the situation demanded, we were able to pull off what on day 1 looked like a “Mission Impossible”.

On a personal front, I got credentialed as a Volunteer Anaesthesiologist by Rob Rubin, Chief Medical Officer, Operation Smile Inc. I met Dr Rashmi for the first time on this Mission. Since then, we have worked together on many occasions, moving from one avatar of Operation Smile to another, constantly supporting each other. Today, I can say with pride, “I am a small part of this beautiful movement called Mission Smile”. Over the past 2 decades, I could contribute as a Volunteer Anaesthesiologist on close to 50 missions; serve as one of the 8 Regional Medical Officers for Operation Smile Inc., USA; don the robe of Chief Medical Officer of Mission Smile for 3 years and currently serve with gratitude on the Board of Trustees of Mission Smile. It has been an enriching journey that has given true meaning and a divine dimension to my life as a doctor. May all doctors have an opportunity as wonderful as mine to provide smiles to God’s incomplete yet beautiful creations.

Dr. Ramkumar Venkateswaran is an eminent Anaesthesiologist, Ex-Professor, Department of Anaesthesiology Kasturba Medical College, Manipal who have been connected with Mission Smile ever since its inception. He is currently associated with Mission Smile as a Trustee of the Board.