Bagley brings a smile to your face
May 14, 2014
Local nurse has 13-year history with Operation Smile
Heather Bagley poses with one of her younger patients in Comayagua, Honduras, before surgery. Citizen courtesy photo
Helping kids to smile all over the world, local resident and pediatric nurse practitioner Heather Bagley knows a few things about rural third world hospitals. Thirteen years ago Bagley went to Nicaragua on behalf of the organization Operation Smile, as one of several professionals volunteering to help repair cleft lip, cleft palate and other facial deformities.
“I worked at Primary Children’s Hospital in Salt Lake, and one of the nurses there told me about it,” said Bagley. She already knew how to speak Spanish, having served an LDS mission to Paraguay. Bagley went on that first trip for Operation Smile the year after learning about the organization, with only two weeks to spare before getting married. It was the first of several missions she has since been a part of.
Recently returned from a mission to Comayagua, Honduras, Bagley recounted the week she spent working at one of Operation Smile’s local missions last spring. It was her fourth expedition for the organization and her second visiting Honduras. Demand is high among volunteers to be able to go, with a waiting list of medical professionals eager to participate. The organization visits over 60 countries, offering free cleft lip and cleft palate surgeries to those who need it.
When Bagley visits countries like Honduras, she’s not there to sight see. Much of her time is spent working 14-hour days, assisting with surgery for as many children as the organization can fit in. When she arrived at the Operacion Sonrisa clinic in Comayagua, a few of her patients had ridden buses in from surrounding areas as far as six hours away. This was a once a year opportunity for them, and not the first for some. Most patients require multiple operations.
For many, these surgeries bring about social acceptance, since it is common for children with facial deformities to be outcast from their community. Often the children and their parents are amazed at how good they look after surgery, and the change is not only physical. “It’s not just cosmetic. Even for the babies, they might have difficulty eating and speaking,” said Bagley. Along with plastic surgery, Operation Smile makes it possible for patients to see dentists, speech therapists and nutritionists. Many of them return year after year for revisions, as doctors strive to help them look and feel better.
“We had a little 16-month old boy who came in and we repaired his cleft lip. His mom had had it too, and I overheard a nurse from Alaska tell the dentist that she wanted to pay for the boy’s mother to get teeth, because she didn’t have any teeth and was probably in her twenties.” These stories are common for those working with Operation Smile, since the organization has spent over 30 years recruiting volunteers from all over the world to give their time and support.
“The amazing thing is [the children] are so grateful, and what they go through is different compared to the United States. They come on screening day, and we screen 80 to 100 people,” said Bagley. If an individual is approved for surgery, many of them have to wait several days for their appointment. “They come on day one, and sit at the hospital for as many as three full days and nights, just waiting.”
Cleft lip and cleft palate surgeries are not necessarily more common in third world countries. However, since impoverished families cannot afford the surgery, children born with these deformities often don’t receive the help they need. The operation only costs about $250, but to those that are able to receive Operation Smile’s help, the transformation is priceless.
“We had a 13-year-old patient with a cleft lip, and his mom had never seen anyone else like that, and thought that her son was the only one in the world like that,” said Bagley.
She also recounted one specific day in the hospital when conditions were particularly stifling. “Our fans weren’t working in post-op and it was extremely hot. One of the dads went and bought three fans from a local store and donated them to us, he was so happy that we worked on his son.”
Bagley has traveled to Honduras, Nicaragua and all the way to Kenya for Operation Smile. She has been asked to go on these missions at the last minute, and she said she feels lucky to have the opportunity to go. “Every single one I’ve gone on, they asked me to go only two weeks before.”
Many volunteers wait years to be called on to participate, enthusiastic to be involved in such a unique and rewarding experience. Bagley has been fortunate to have a supportive employer at Teton Valley Health Care, enabling her to schedule missions with little notice.
“It’s not surprising to know that Heather is passionate about her volunteer work for Operation Smile. She has such a warm, beautiful smile that it would be unfair not to share that gift with others. She’s an excellent role model for our youth and for her profession,” said Anne Loyola, Director of Public Relations at Teton Valley
CEO Keith Gnagey added, “Her commitment to Operation Smile is a reflection of her personal and professional priorities of helping young people.”
Unsure of when or where she will go next for the organization, Bagley looks forward to continuing her work.
“It’s really rewarding,” she said. Evident in the smiles of her patients, her work is indeed appreciated.