Alita Watson's Smile Network International

Who she is: Alita Watson is the director of site development for the nonprofit organization Smile Network International

What she does: “I have always had a passion for helping those who don’t have the resources or capabilities to access health care and education in the U.S and developing countries around the world,” says Alita, who has spent extensive time traveling through South and Central America and Africa, volunteering her time to develop projects that empower the impoverished populations. In 2007, Alita started a project to assist young women in Ghana attend school (Brilliant Futures International) and currently has over 40 girls enrolled and excelling in their academics and communities.

Why she does it: Alita’s efforts in Africa are what led her to Smile Network International, as this continent has, in many ways, become a second home to her. She joined Smile Network in the fall of 2007 for a temporary internship that led to another unexpected journey—developing new mission sites all over the world for Smile Network. “When you look around and let this start to sink in, your heart breaks,” she says. “The only thing that relieves this morbidity is the love and the joy that come from making any difference we can.”

Smile Network Surgical Mission, July 1, 2010

By Alita Watson
Director of Site Development
Smile Network International

I write from the road leading from Mbale to Entebbe Uganda, where the Smile mission has come to an end after two amazing weeks of working with a group of people who now strangely feel like family.

I don’t think you can do something like we just did together and not feel bonded beyond the means of our assigned roles on this mission. We met some of the most kind and endearing people I have ever come across and saw things that were both inspiring and heartbreaking.

The hospital we were working in is the only one in the country that treats hydrocephalus, which causes a swelling of brain. In babies, whose skulls are still soft, it causes the circumference of their heads to expand. In the rural villages of Uganda, it is perceived as a freakish disorder (similar to cleft lip).

Mothers come here with their babies as a last hope, and some of them have sadly already given up. Yesterday I went to embrace a mother waiting to see a doctor. Her child had spina bifida, which had caused his head to swell to at least 10 times the normal size. He had received surgery months before to drain the fluid from the spinal cord.

She removed the child’s pants, and I was astonished at what I saw. This child would have had a chance of survival, but his mother had left him sitting in his own feces for 12 hours a day, causing him to develop horrific pressure soars. The mother had waited so long to come in for treatment that the infection had caused enormous holes through his small and fragile body cavity. Nothing has taken my breath away like that since I started this work, almost three years ago.

Another mother came to us holding her two-year old daughter, who had been set on fire with kerosene. Her hand had been burned into her chest and mutated. I became physically ill as I touched the little bit of soft, sweet skin that remained, next to the burnt and raw tissue that covered 90% of her body.

Nothing can be done for so many of these patients. There are only 10 practicing plastic surgeons and 16 anesthesiologists in the entire country of Uganda, which has a population of 30 million. This hospital is one of two that offers free medical care. The average Ugandan makes $1 a day and provides for a family of 8 to 10 people.

When you look around and let this start to sink in, your heart breaks. The only thing that relieves this morbidity is the love and the joy that come from making any difference we can.

We did 35 surgeries in just eight days, on children as young as two months and adults as old as 35. One woman, Evelyn, came to us with her husband. They told us they had been the laughing stock of their village. “Why would you marry a creature like that!,” the men would shout at her husband in public. The women excluded her from community functions, and the couple became isolated from their families altogether.

I wish you could have seen their faces when we came into the ward the morning after she’d received surgery. They were sitting on her bed, touching foreheads and he kept lifting her chin to stare at her beautiful new smile. It was amazing because you couldn’t even see stitches; she glowed with pride, knowing she would be returning to her village later that day saying “HA! You see now what a beauty I am!”

What a gift. What a gift! This is the hardest I can remember working in my life. The days were long and physically and emotionally exhausting. But what a true honor it has been to give this gift that will forever change the lives of each and every one of these people.

My family buried my grandfather today. He was a hero who led many men through tragic war and who always spoke for those who had no voice. While it’s difficult to be honoring his life from so far away, I know this is where he would want me to be right now.

My girls in Ghana await me tomorrow. Their hugs and smiles are exactly what I need today.

The Women