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Premed student Beatrize Zayco

Beatrize Zayco, Premed '20, On Volunteering with Operation Smile in the Philippines

  • Beatrize Zayco BS ’20 is a force of nature on the MCPHS–Boston campus. In addition to working in the office of Student Affairs, the rising junior, who is enrolled in the Premedical and Health Studies program, and who will interview for the Physician Assistant Studies program this fall, is a mentor for the Asian Student Association, a group she credits with helping her forge some of her most meaningful social connections.

    Recently, Zayco undertook a voyage of professional and personal discovery, returning for the first time in twelve years to the nation of her birth, the Philippines, as a volunteer with the medical charity organization Operation Smile. We sat down with Zayco to discuss her experience.

    Welcome, Beatrize! Let’s talk about your decision to volunteer in the Philippines. What was behind that?

    Certainly. My family moved to Orange County in California when I was in third grade, or about eight years old; when I went back to the Philippines this time, it was my first visit in twelve years! I speak the language and know the culture, which is quite an advantage. But as I started to do research online, I found that there are not many medical mission trips to the Philippines. Those that do exist are very expensive, ranging between two and three thousand dollars. They’re also very structured. Then, one of my distant family members told me that she had worked as a local volunteer with Operation Smile, an organization that helps children with cleft lips and palates. It occurred to me that if I paid for my own airfare, and stayed with my grandparents, I could be a local volunteer instead of an international one—then, I’d get to do whatever I wanted with my free time!

    Tell me more about how the volunteer experience is structured.

    I worked in Bacolod, which is in the Visayas region of the Philippines, for seven days. I worked on the same schedule as the international workers, and had dinner with the medical team, but I was still considered a local volunteer. On the first day, we screened about two hundred children to determine whether they were healthy enough, and of an appropriate age, to withstand surgery. We got their records, vital signs, and bloodwork, all on the same day, and we identified, prioritized, and scheduled those who would receive surgery by the end of the day. The screening was conducted in one large gymnasium. If you consider that each child was typically accompanied by two or three family members, you can imagine how crowded and hot it became by the end of the day.

    I personally bought and donated about two hundred little gift bags of toys to help calm and distract the children. I thought it was so sad that some families would travel five or six hours only to find out that their child couldn’t have the operation. One family came back for a checkup. Since their twins still had pneumonia, they could not receive the operation. One surgeon told me about a boy who had walked four hours because he couldn’t afford a bus ticket—when he arrived he had a cough and was turned down for surgery. The drive of these people to get help was incredible; the fact that sometimes they didn’t get help was very sad. That said, we tried our best to help as many people as possible; we ended up performing surgery on one hundred and forty-two patients. Some dentists were on hand, and they tried to create fillers for the palate in cases when surgery was not possible. Also, we had parents of children who already had the surgery who volunteered to come in and coach new families, reassuring and encouraging those who have been turned down to come back next year.

    What kind of duties did you perform?

    I helped to translate for the families who did not speak English with volunteers from Sweden, Mexico, Australia, and the United States. I helped with note taking, getting the children’s medical histories, and recording family medical histories and allergy information. It felt good to relay information and explain everything. I also really wanted to play with the kids—I love kids. It was a really hot day, and they had been waiting there since 5:00 a.m. At one point, I just went to the store and bought candy to give out.

    Can you tell me some of the outcomes you saw?

    I was able to follow a family from start to finish, screening day through pre-op and surgery, then to the recovery room, post-op, and final discharge. It was really cool to see the whole journey, especially because the improvements of surgery were visible the very next day. Some of the cases were so severe that I didn’t even recognize the children the day after surgery because they looked so different.

    During surgery, my task was to translate. Families would arrive in batches of five. While they waited for their children to come out of surgery, volunteers would play with the other children, while also offering explanations, information, and reassurance to the parents. Some older children were scared; the little ones were just cranky because it was hot and they were tired. The ones who were going to have surgery hadn’t eaten in a day. We just made everyone as comfortable as possible during a stressful situation.

    How did your experience surprise or challenge you?

    It was definitely an emotional rollercoaster, an experience which brought on a mixture of sadness, happiness, and gratitude all at once. I was grateful for what we provided the families; yet I experienced a lot of sadness, seeing families who wanted this surgery so badly and were turned down. I wanted everyone to have this surgery! By the same token, it made me grateful to see so much love in one place. You could see how tired the parents were, but the love they have for their children drove them to make this incredible sacrifice.

    Are you thinking about going back again?

    I, 100%, want to go back again. I’ve already talked to the local coordinator about being a volunteer again next year; if all goes well, I want to visit all five locations in which Operation Smile works over the course of two to three months. This experience has opened my eyes to the living conditions of a Third World country; while we college students stress about exams, there are people who stress about survival and who will travel five hours just to give their children a chance at surgery. Seeing that level of dedication is a life-changing experience. I think everyone should have that experience.

    The School of Arts and Sciences at MCPHS integrates liberal arts and sciences with professional studies, including a Bachelor of Science Premedical and Health Studies program designed to jump-start the healthcare careers of future leaders.