September 2019
Jennifer Crusco
Communications Assistant

Teen Eyes Nursing Career After Operation Smile Mission in Morocco

Demarest, NJ: A two-week medical mission trip to Morocco changed Rutherford, New Jersey’s Sarah McGowan’s life forever. While volunteering with Operation Smile in El Jadida, McGowan was inspired to pursue a nursing career as her team brought hundreds of free, corrective surgeries to individuals with cleft lip and cleft palate.

Now a senior at the Academy of the Holy Angels, McGowan has been involved with the school’s Operation Smile Club since her freshman year. Over the years, several club members have successfully applied for medical missions with Operation Smile, a non-profit organization founded by AHA alumna Kathleen McGee and her husband, Dr. William McGee.

McGowan attended the International Student Leadership Conferences held in 2018 and 2019 in Seattle and Winston-Salem. She also attended mission training, which helps student volunteers learn what to expect on a medical mission, and how to prepare educational health care modules. Each student makes approximately 100 health and hygiene presentations that include information about nutrition, handwashing, burn and wound care, dental hygiene, and CPR. During their mission trips, volunteers also interact with patients, observe surgeries, and organize medical records.

Before she left the United States, McGowan was busy preparing for the trip.

“I collected donations of beach balls, stuffed animals, bubbles, chalk, etc., and made my educational modules.” She added, “Going on a medical mission was always a dream for me and I could not believe it was coming true.”

While she was excited to see Morocco, McGowan was apprehensive about being so far from home and wondered if she would fit in with the local culture. After one plane ride to Paris and another to Casablanca, McGowan, her student partner, and chaperone met the medical team.

“Everyone was so friendly, and we all connected with each other the first night,” she reported. “The Moroccan volunteers were so welcoming and happy to have us in their country.”

The mission began with three screening days for prospective patients. Some people are denied surgery because they are ill, have an infection, or are underweight. Those who are sent home are put on antibiotics and are welcome to return to the next Operation Smile mission in that location.

“During screening days, I was giving presentations to the families and playing with the children all day long, trying to make them feel comfortable and less nervous to be at the hospital. I connected with many of the family members, trying to explain who I was and how excited I was to help their children,” McGowan said.

Five surgery days followed. McGowan and the team were ready to go 5 a.m. and did not return to their hotel until 8 p.m.

“These days were super long. I was in and out of the post- and pre-operation wards, preparing the patients to go down into surgery and welcoming them back out of surgery. I walked mothers up into the post-op rooms, which was very emotional for me. They were very nervous, not knowing really who we are and wondering if their children were going to be okay. I connected with many patients during these days, and met some of the most amazing nurses.”

One boy, in particular, made a lasting impression on McGowan.

“I met this 11-year-old boy, Muhamad. He is truly someone I will never forget. Before he went down into surgery, I saw him nervously rocking back and forth on his chair in his surgery gown. I walked over to him and singled him out to stand up and play catch with me.”

She took a beach ball out of her backpack, and their friendship began.

“Right away, he was back in his element and smiling,” she reported.

“When it was time for him to go into surgery, he grabbed my hand right when we walked out of the pre-op room and went into the elevator. I tried to tell him he was going to do great and everything was going to be fine, but the language barrier was hard. So, instead, I was giving him high fives, thumbs up, and kept on holding his hand. He went into surgery and I felt a sense of disconnection, walking his mother to the post-op room. I felt like I was in charge of his life.

“The surgery is going to change his life in all different ways,” McGowan said, adding that many individuals with cleft lip and cleft palate have difficulty eating and drinking, and are often bullied.

“Muhamad was one of the last surgeries that day, so I knew I would see him the next morning. I woke up the next morning with so much energy and excitement to go to the hospital and see Muhamad in the post-op ward. He was there waiting for me, and I ran into his room and his eyes lit up. He tried to get out of bed, but I signed that he needed to rest.

“Every 30 minutes, I would go into his room to check on him. Toward the afternoon, he was one of the first patients to have energy to play soccer with me in the hospital hallways. We made matching bracelets together and took so many pictures that I will cherish. It came time for him to leave the hospital, but I had this feeling that it was not going to be the last time I would see him.

“He did not understand why I was hugging him a million times and saying ‘bye’ in Arabic, but I could tell he was not too happy about it. His mother thanked me with kisses and hugs and showed me how much it meant to her that I helped change her son’s life.”

All together, the mission team provided over 200 surgeries for children and adults with cleft conditions.

“I have found my love for nursing in Morocco,” McGowan added. “Being able to provide a treatment for these patients is something I know I want to do for the rest of my life.”

Founded by the School Sisters of Notre Dame in 1879, the Academy of the Holy Angels is the oldest private girls’ school in Bergen County. While AHA is steeped in Catholic tradition, this prestigious high school serves young women from a broad spectrum of cultural and religious backgrounds. Over time, thousands of women have passed through AHA’s portals. Many go on to study at some of the nation’s best universities, earning high-ranking positions in medicine, government, law, education, public service, business, arts, and athletics. The Academy’s current leaders continue to further the SSND mission to provide each student with the tools she needs to reach the fullness of her potential—spiritually, intellectually, socially, and physically, by offering a first-rate education in a nurturing environment where equal importance is placed on academic excellence, character development, moral integrity, and service to others.


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