Sporting a t-shirt with the sign 'Be Someone,' Masconomet senior Brian Ake certainly proved he is that, and more, as he introduced a small audience in the library presentation room to a video he produced in Cambodia, several days before his graduation.
Besides its exotic destination, Brian's internship stands out in the sea of increasingly exciting final semester senior internships in a very special way.
The student from Topsfield journeyed this past March to Cambodia as part of a group called Operation Smile. Made up of teams of professional, mainly medical volunteers from various countries, Operation Smile travels around the globe to offer free reconstructive surgery to children who suffer from the birth abnormality known as cleft lip and/or palate, and who otherwise would have no access to surgical treatment.
What made Brian's journey all the more unique became clear as the lights dimmed and the video began with the photo of a baby boy with a cleft palate.
Brian's voice begins the video's narrative. "I was born with a complete bilateral cleft palate," then goes on to say how his own surgical odyssey began 18 years ago in Children's Hospital in Boston when he was only a month old. He credits the wonderful care he received there over the years and the beneficial multiple surgeries performed on him by Dr. John Mulliken and also Dr. Bonnie Padwa at Children's. One of his doctors, Stephen Sullivan, journeyed to Cambodia with Brian.
Brian says he wanted to help others without access to the great medical care he had received, and to combine it with his internship.
"I wanted a meaningful, positive experience," Brian said. And that he got. The chance, he said, "To change lives one smile at a time."
He began in Dec. of 2007 with an Internet fundraising effort, hoping to raise $10,000. It was so successful, Brian upped the ante to $20,000 and again, bested that goal too, collecting $26,000 in three months for Operation Smile.
One little girl gave him a penny, another donor gave him $3,000, enough to fund many of the $240 surgeries. The effort taught him, he says, "that one person can make a difference".
On Mar. 10, he and his mother Margaret Ake, were on their way to Khmer-Soviet Friendship Hospital in Phnom Penh as part of a 50-person team. Brian's job was to oversee student programs for the youngsters who had journeyed from all over the country with the hope of being treated. They needed to be occupied during the long hours of screening. "There is a lot of waiting," Brian said. He also visited area schools and orphanages.
His mother worked in medical records while there, then helped during the marathon surgical sessions.
She said in the video, "Brian and I have been on a journey that began 18 years ago. Having Brian changed my life".
Much work needed to be accomplished in a very short time. Seven screening stations were set up, beginning with photos of every prospective patient, in this case, 2000 photos in all. Another station took a child's vitals, a third station was for anesthesia, a fourth for dental, and so on. The purpose is to choose the most suitable candidates, which inevitably meant some had to be turned away.
"Many are too small for surgery," Brian explained, while "some need teeth removed (prior to their operation)". Some with illnesses like cancer, simply could not be helped by this mission.
Although most children have unilateral or bilateral cleft lip, there were also burn victims seeking corrective surgery, some of whom were treated.
In his video, Brian interviewed some of the team members, who he said "became like a family". A surgeon from Australia has made the Operation Smile journeys many times past.
"I love coming here. I love giving back," he said.
A volunteer woman from Singapore said, "The people are so poor, yet so rich in heart."
As those who did not qualify for surgery were sifted out, the time for the patients who would undergo the procedure drew near.
One nurse said she was touched by "the laughter of the children and the mothers' tears of joy".
More than 50 beds were set up in a makeshift post-op room with straw mattresses and clean linens. The seven surgeons and their assistants set to work. As each surgery ended, volunteers like Margaret carried the youngsters to their beds to recover, as gurneys were not available in such number.
The surgery went on all day—133 patients in all. When it was over, Brian concluded, "So many problems cannot be fixed. This is one that can".
The goal of Operation Smile is for the countries to take over and perform their own operations once they're trained.
In the fall, Brian heads to Assumption College in Worcester. He plans to become a high school history teacher, and to continue his work with Operation Smile.