West Chester’s Kathy Finegan honored by Operation Smile for volunteer work

Kathy Finegan shares a laugh with Operation Smile coworkers and local nurses in Egypt. She said that cultural barriers dissolve when they work together for the children.
Kathy Finegan shares a laugh with Operation Smile coworkers and local nurses in Egypt. She said that cultural barriers dissolve when they work together for the children. Courtesy photo
Kathy Finegan, left, spends time with the mothers of some of her patients at a former Belgium hospital in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Kathy Finegan, left, spends time with the mothers of some of her patients at a former Belgium hospital in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Courtesy photo

Every time Kathy Finegan travels to a third-world country, she leaves behind smiles.

The smiles belong to children, teenagers and even adults who had been ostracized for facial deformities, who had trouble eating and speaking, or who didn’t have the appropriate medical care to make a difference in their lives.

Until Finegan and other volunteers from Operation Smile entered their lives.

Finegan, an emergency room nurse from West Chester, volunteers with Operation Smile, an international nonprofit medical organization that helps repair cleft lips and palates and other facial deformities in poverty-stricken areas worldwide.

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“I took my first trip in 2007,” Finegan said in a telephone interview. “Thirty-three trips later I’m still in love with it.”

She was recently honored with the organization’s Donna Poe-Davis Award for Excellence in Nursing. Finegan, whose duties with the organization include pre- and post-nursing during the surgeries, was described by Operation Smile as “the ideal volunteer.”

“She is the nurse you want to have training all of the other nurses,” according to a press release from the organization. “She is wonderful with patients and their families.”

Finegan, who worked for years as an emergency room nurse in Philadelphia, serves as part of a team of about 50 volunteers who perform the often life-changing surgeries. In March of this year, she traveled to Myanmar with the organization. In May she traveled to Nicaragua with her team; in July to the Congo; and to the Philippines in August.

“It’s quite an eye opener to see how the majority of the world lives and how we can make a difference,” she said. “It changes their lives.”

Cleft lips and palates occur during pregnancy and result in openings in the lips or mouths of the babies. Finegan explained that facial and oral deformities are often seen in countries as supernatural in nature, or as errors on the part of the mothers. Those born with cleft lips or palates or other facial deformities can be ostracized.

The free surgeries, Finegan said, “change their lives.”

Two years ago, when she was in the Congo with Operation Smile, Finegan met a 79-year-old man who wanted his facial deformities repaired.

“He lived with it all those years,” she said. “It was quite moving.”

On each mission, Operation Smile dispatches a team of nurses, anesthesiologists, plastic surgeons, dentists, psychologists, operating room and recovery room nurses, medical records specialists, and others – all managed by a project coordinator.

“It’s amazing to watch 40 to 50 strangers interact, and within two days act as a team,” Finegan said.

There is a two-day screening of potential patients, where personnel ensure those who will receive the surgeries are in good health. Age, malnourishment and other medical problems can disqualify someone from surgery, although Finegan said there is always a possibility of performing the surgery at a later date if conditions change.

Potential patients go through other stations, such as dental, nursing, speech therapy and anesthesia. After all that, the Operation Smile team announces who is – and isn’t – eligible for surgery. Finegan described that as always a difficult time. Some are just too young for the surgery, or some may be too malnourished.

In those cases, speech therapists can advise parents on proper nutrition and alternative ways to feed, she said.

Each team spends five days at their location in surgery. Repairing a cleft lip can take about 45 minutes; repairing a cleft palate can take up to two hours. Finegan said the team spends 12 to 14 hours each day in surgery.

“You just hit the ground running,” she said. “Even though you may be jet-lagged, it’s a different kind of energy. And the reward is seeing the parents and children.”

Occasionally the Operation Smile team will help burn victims. Finegan recalled the case of a teenager in Ghana who was brought to their hospital by a Peace Corps volunteer. The boy was severely burned from having fallen into the fire as a child after having a seizure.

He had never been treated for the burns, and locals thought he was touched by the devil. Finegan said he lived on the beach by himself and worked with local fishermen to get food for himself. He wouldn’t make eye contact with the Operation Smile team for days.

“We were able to relieve some of the contractures, but he was pretty bad,” she said, referring to a condition when the muscles and other tissues shorten.

Finegan’s passion for the work that Operation Smile does is obvious when she talks.

“It’s such an amazing organization,” she said.

While she works part-time in the ER these days, Finegan said she wants to take full advantage of working with Operation Smile.

“I’m at retirement age but I keep on going,” she said. “They know I’m available for last-minute add-ons. Operation Smile has provided me a lot of opportunities.”

To learn more about Operation Smile and its work worldwide, go online at www.operationsmile.org.