Operation Smile Volunteer and Clinical Coordinator and Co-Chair of the New Jersey Operation Smile Chapter, Norrie Oelkers first learned about Operation Smile from her son Ryan.

As a high school student at Delbarton School in Morristown, NJ, Ryan explained to his mom that Operation Smile was a group of medical and non-medical volunteers who traveled to Third World Countries and performed life-saving surgery on children who suffered from severe facial deformities, mainly Cleft Lip and Cleft Palate and also burns and tumors.

Ryan was a member of the Operation Smile High School Club at Delbarton and their goal was to hold several fundraisers every year and contribute the money to help pay for surgeries. The cost of one surgery is $240.00. Since Norrie is a surgical nurse, she thought this was a worthy cause and offered to help the boys with their fundraisers.

In the small world category, Norrie’s son graduated and attended Villanova University where he met Kristie Magee, daughter of Dr. Bill and Kathy Magee, who were the founders of Operation Smile in 1982!

My son told Kristie that I presently worked in the Operating Room at Morristown Memorial Hospital in NJ and she quickly suggested Norrie should volunteer as a surgical nurse on missions. Ryan persisted, and when he explained she could be a Circulating Nurse (teaching the local nurses in each country how to practice correct sterile technique with all types of Plastic Surgery procedures) Norrie finally agreed to apply for admission to be an Operation Smile volunteer and within a few weeks was accepted.

Within a month, she was asked to be a volunteer on a mission to Tegucigalpa, Honduras in 1997. She was one of 50 volunteers on a team consisting of plastic surgeons, anesthesiologists, pediatricians, dentists, OR nurses, PACU nurses, Pre and Post-Op nurses, Child Life Specialist, Speech Therapist and non-medical volunteers who were in charge of Medical Records.

The team also brought two high school students on every mission and a Student Sponsor who was their chaperone. The high school students were an integral part of Norrie’s team and played with the children during the screening process and also before and after their surgery.

Norrie had volunteered all of her adult life with many charities and was active in every Home School Association that her children attended, but never experienced anything like a medical mission and with her nursing background immediately felt like a part of the team.

For the first three days, she screened over 300 children with many medical anomalies, especially cleft lips and palates. These families were destitute and they had no chance of receiving medical care in their countries. Many parents and grandparents traveled for days to reach the hospital, many sleeping in the streets on their journey. They traveled by bus, boat, and many walked miles to find this group known as Operation Smile, who would be their only hope to help their children have surgery, repair their deformity and have some chance of living a normal life.

Their children were ostracized from society, not allowed to attend school and were bullied by their friends.

Those children suffering from Cleft Lip were unable to nurse from their mom because they were unable to latch on to their mother’s breast due to their mouth and lips not being totally formed.
Those with Cleft Palates were unable to drink a bottle of milk or be nursed since the milk would come out of their nose with the hole in the roof of their mouth so large.

These children also suffered from severe speech impediments due to the air that would escape from the hole in their palate causing severe nasal sounds.

The worst part of these deformities was that many of these children suffered from “Failure to Thrive” and did not live beyond six months old.

Norrie’s team had the difficult job of choosing those children who were the highest priority for surgery.

They had only three surgical rooms so added two additional surgical tables in two of the rooms and even placed an additional stretcher in the hallway so they could perform surgery on older children under Local Anesthesia.

The saddest part of their surgical schedule was that they had to turn away 150 children from surgery since they had only 5 days to perform surgery, with their team working up to 18 hours a day.
They were thrilled to complete almost 150 surgeries but it was heartbreaking to see parents cry when their child was not chosen and know that they might not have another chance.

Norrie cried as she related the story of her first mission to family and friends. Within a week of her return, she called Operation Smile and spoke to Dr. Magee and his wife Kathy and thanked them for allowing her to be a member and made a commitment to them to help as much as possible in the years to come.
That was over twenty years ago, and since then Norrie has gone on 42 missions to 23 countries around the world.

After her first three years she became the Clinical Coordinator and a team leader along with the main surgeon, anesthesiologist and pediatrician.

They run the mission for their team, select the patients for the schedule and manage the OR, PACU and Post Op. “The thrill of helping thousands of children have a new life are the rewards,” Norrie said. “I still remember the first time I brought a child back to their parents in PACU (Recovery Room) handed the child to them and watched them look at their child’s new face! The tears alone melted me and I realized then that every child deserved a chance for a normal life.”

Norrie has been in the poorest countries in the world which motivates her to work even hard, and continue to help with the missions.

She was part of a team that went to Haiti after the Earthquake in 2010. Op Smile was the first medical team to arrive and joined Partners in Health to operate on hundreds of people who had lost limbs, were crushed in debris and needed amputations and skins grafts to create new skin flaps to allow future prosthesis to be attached to arms and legs.

The team debrided the wounds of many children who were burned and sadly watched many children die of infections and gangrene that could not be helped due to lack of antibiotics.

They slept in tents, ate fresh goat meat every day and we were thankful for a bucket of water every day to wash their faces. It was Norrie’s hardest mission ever but she loved being there for the people of Haiti.

“I still pray for every child or mom and dad that I cared for those two weeks that I was there and they remain in my heart,” Norrie remembers.

Norrie is fully committed to Operation Smile and will continue to go on missions as long as she is fit and able.

Her husband Rich joined her on five missions where he volunteered to help with Medical Records and helped transport children into the OR.

Norrie’s two daughters joined her on a mission for the 25th Anniversary of Operation Smile to Fortaleza, Brazil. Her oldest daughter Lauren is a Nurse Practitioner and she worked as a Pre and Post Op Nurse on the mission, while her youngest daughter Kerry was a photographer on the mission and took pictures of the children during the screening process and then took pictures of the children in the OR before and after their surgery.

These photos were then transferred to a computer where operation smile keeps excellent records of every patient and the outcome of their surgery. There is always a doctor and nurse in every country who will continue to check on the post-op condition of each patient after a team leaves the mission site and when they return to the country the following year, they ask all patients from our last mission to return for a post op check-up.

In 2002, Norrie was asked to help with fundraising for Operation Smile in New Jersey, and accepted the position of Co-Chair of the Operation Smile New Jersey Chapter. She is a member of the Speakers Bureau, gives presentations and shows videos to schools, hospitals, clubs and various groups of people who want to learn more about the Operation Smile.

Operation Smile is a NGO with no financial help from the US government, thereby making it necessary to raise funds throughout the world. Being a volunteer nurse with Op Smile, Norrie realizes the need to continuously help raise funds and help support each mission.

“I am blessed to be a member of Operation Smile,” Norrie says. “This has become an important part of life for myself and my entire family who help me with my fundraising. I am so happy to be able to use my love of nursing and combine it with my spirit of volunteerism especially for children who are suffering from deformities and live in the poorest countries in the world.”

And we at Nurses With Global Impact are blessed to be able to share this story, and recognize Norrie’s past and future work as part of International Nurses Day celebrations in the US, and around the world.

Please join me in smiling along with Norrie on May 11, at the United Nations, while also passing this and our other stories along, supporting our mission to raise visibility around amazing nurses like Norrie, and the organizations and missions they support.

– Deb