Walking among the boxes of medical supplies filling the large warehouse in Norfolk, Va. that are destined for such places as Ecuador, Brazil, Vietnam and Swaziland, Ruben Ayala pauses and says, "It is a sacred responsibility to take a child from their mother or father and be entrusted with giving them a second chance at life."
As a member of Operation Smile, that is exactly what the 34-year-old Ayala does. Since its founding in 1982, the medical charity has organized international teams of physicians who have volunteered their time to perform surgeries on more than 100,000 children worldwide suffering from facial deformities such as cleft lips and palates.
When Ayala first volunteered for the organization as a teenager he had no idea that one day he would actually be playing a critical role in helping to bring smiles to the faces of thousands of children who never thought a normal smile would be possible.
"These American doctors are coming here to help some children," Ayala's mother, Leidys, told him in the summer of 1992. "Would you like to translate for them?"
Ayala jumped at the opportunity. While he had never heard of Operation Smile and had never even seen a child with a cleft lip or palate, he wanted to do something to help his hometown of David, Panama.
When Ayala called David's regional hospital the next day to sign up as an Operation Smile volunteer he was told they already had enough translators. Ayala was disappointed, but determined. The next morning, he woke up early and went to the hospital anyway and talked his way into translating for two surgeons.
Arriving at the hospital that morning was an experience Ayala will never forget. Operation Smile was screening which children it would be able to operate on and hundreds of them and their parents were waiting anxiously outside the hospital waiting to be seen. "I was walking through these huge crowds of parents holding their children, who were looking at me with these sad faces and they had these huge holes in the mouths," he recalls. "It was shocking." Ayala also felt anger at the inability of his country's own health care system to take care of these kids itself.
Over the next two weeks, Ayala was struck by the compassionate and caring way the two surgeons dealt with the children and their parents. Ayala was also astounded at their results. The children who were coming out of surgery, many after just 45 minutes, looked completely normal.
To read more on Dr. Ayala's passion to bring smiles to chilren's faces, click here. Or pick up the May issue of Selecciones magazine.