My trip with the Aussie Bangla Smile team


Today’s guest blogger is Enrolled Nurse Pia Buckingham, who has been nursing for 24 years. During that time Pia has worked in aged care, group homes for the intellectually disabled, home and community nursing. For the past 15 years she has worked in operating theatres, including 12 years at Nepean Hospital, now as a scrub and scout nurse. Pia completed a Perioperative Practice Instrument Nurse course in 2006 and in 2009 was awarded an Advanced Diploma in Perioperative Nursing.

In November 2011 I was privileged to be a member of the Aussi Bangla Smile team that travelled to Bangladesh to perform facial surgery on children and a few adults from remote villages. The team consisted of two surgeons, two anaesthetists, three scrub and scout nurses and three anaesthetic nurses. (The Aussi Bangla Smile Project involves a voluntary surgical team under the umbrella of Rotary International. The project carries out cleft lip/palate, burn contracture and birth defect corrective plastic surgeries in remote regions of Bangladesh.)

The 2011 team in Bangladesh. Pia is fourth from right.

My role was scrub and scout nurse. The team was in Bangladesh for 16 days, during which we performed 115 surgical procedures over nine days. The rest of the time was spent travelling between two hospitals, one land-based on the western border, the other on a hospital boat in the northeast.

Bangladesh is a country the size of Tasmania, but with a population of 142 million. In Bangladesh, the plastic surgeon to population ratio is 1:200,000. In Australia, the plastic surgeon to population ratio is 1:70,000.

In Bangladesh, some 200,000 people are in need of cleft lip and cleft palate surgery.

The land-based hospital, known as the Impact Jibon Mela, was eight hours travel by bus from the capital Dhaka. Our team was at Jibon Mela for four and a half days, during which time we performed 65 procedures. We then made the long journey back to Dhaka, firstly by road but for the majority of the distance by 30-seat aircraft.

We spent two nights in Dhaka gathering supplies, recuperating and seeing a bit of the city. Then we travelled by bus northeast to the Impact Jibon Tari Floating Hospital. We were there for four and a half days and completed 50 procedures.

Impact Jibon Tari Floating Hospital.

Thus, 115 lives were changed in a positive way. The children were now able to attend school and the adults to find work, the women were now able to get married. All of the patients had previously been shunned by their society.

Our day would start at 7am with breakfast and discussion and planning for the day ahead. Surgical procedures were underway by 8am. Lunch was taken about 3pm and dinner anywhere between 10pm and midnight.

At breakfast.

Dr Hasan Sarwar, whose passion and drive for this project has inspired so many, was responsible for the situation where the numbers of surgical staff volunteering for each mission greatly exceeded the number who could actually deploy.

Pia on the left with Dr Rannard and Dr Sarwar.

The Aussi Bangla Smile mission believes that we have a responsibility as fortunate members of the global community to assist those most in need in the rest of the world. We have the skills, resources, drive, spirit and selflessness to make a permanent, positive and beneficial difference to the lives of the people of Bangladesh.

Our skilled teams are self-sufficient, they are all medical professionals who volunteer their services. We pay our own airfares and use our own annual leave to deploy on these surgical missions. My team included some who had been on previous missions to Bangladesh, though most had not.

At Sydney Airport, ready to leave.

Although I had a reasonable amount of International travel under my belt, I was taken aback by the abject poverty, overcrowding and prevalence of some very interesting aromas and complete lack of adherence to any form of road rules.

I found myself the centre of attention several times in public as I was the only member of the team who had blonde hair and probably the only one the locals had ever seen. The attention was mostly okay, except when someone pinched me on the arm to make sure I was a real person and not an apparition.

I still have difficulty measuring the fulfilment and pride I feel as a surgical nurse, as an ambassador for our country and as a mentor and role model for the staff at both hospitals in Bangladesh.

I found it incredible that we as a surgical team could change someone’s life forever in the space of a couple of hours. Especially considering many had travelled for days to reach us.

I must admit, at times it was physically and mentally demanding, but any sacrifices I made were well worth it. My mission to Bangladesh was an experience I will never forget.

Sabnur post-surgery.

The results from 2007-2013 have brought smiles to 549 patients directly and countless family members indirectly, changing their lives positively forever.

I would like to thank Barbie Mitchell and Dr Hasan Sarwar for their tireless work on the Aussi Bangla Smile Project, they are an inspiration.

More information: Aussi Bangle Smile Project



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