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BC Children’s Hospital employee inspiring smiles in the Philippines

BC Children’s Child Life Specialist Bernadette Sanchez travelled to the island of Palawan in the Philippines with the volunteer medical charity Operation Smile to help children with cleft lips and cleft palates.
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“I thought it was a great way to use my skills, providing play opportunities to help children cope with their hospital experience,” says Sanchez. “Patients and families came from all over the island; some by boat, by van, by car and even by carabao (the local breed of water buffalo). I am so grateful to have been part of this.”

In Canada, cleft lips or cleft palates are surgically repaired before a child turns one year old, but that’s not the case elsewhere in the world. A cleft lip happens when the tissue that makes up the lip does not join completely before birth. A cleft palate results when the tissue that makes up the roof of the mouth does not join together completely during pregnancy. These conditions, when left untreated, can create issues with speaking, hearing and eating. They can also trigger tooth problems and ear infections.

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(Above photos credit: Operation Smile Canada)

“A lot of the patients couldn’t talk, couldn’t form words and many were undernourished,” says Sanchez.

OR2.JPGThe surgeries to repair the conditions take approximately one to two hours, depending on how complex they are. In total, the team of local and international medical volunteers provided 115 successful surgeries in less than five operating room days. Using things like bubbles and toy stethoscopes, Sanchez helped prepare the patients for the surgeries. 

“I use play therapeutically as a way to make families comfortable, teach and prepare them, and normalize the situation,” she says. “Some of the families had never experienced air conditioning before. They were freezing so I had to give them blankets.”

To set up her playroom for the surgeries, Sanchez spent time fundraising here in Vancouver and flew over with all the items to set up her workspace.

Palawan Playroom.jpg  IMG_9515 (2).jpg

“I’ve seen how powerful play is in a hospital setting,” she says. “Even when a child is too sick to play, if they watch me play, it’s vicarious and it can trigger a momentous reaction. You can see their breathing rate change. By allowing them to choose the game, it gives them a choice in a situation where they have no choice and gives them back some control.” 

Her skills turned out to be crucial as one school-aged patient ran out of the operating room. Sanchez speaks the Philippines’ official language of Tagalog and by playing and talking to the boy, she was able to find out that his father had recently died in a hospital. 

“I recognized that he was in fight or flight mode,” says Sanchez. “He equated the hospital with death and dying.” 

It didn’t help that on either side of him, two other patients in the operating room were already under anaesthesia and looked like they had passed away. Eventually the team was able to make him comfortable enough to go into the OR safely, completing the surgery.

team photo.JPG

The operating room was assembled in a local government hospital and volunteers came from all over the world, including Egypt, Iran, Sweden, and the U.S. Sanchez was the only child life specialist and she says she plans to volunteer for Operation Smile again.

“I felt very connected to the families I met,” she says. “It was definitely an amazing, life-changing experience.”


BC Children's Hospital; patient experience
Children's Health
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