By Liew Hanqing
THE pint-sized woman had been ridiculed for years by fellow villagers - because both her children were born deformed.
The villagers taunted her, insisting that her children's deformities had something to do with her small stature.
She was one of many parents who took their children to a small Cambodian village to have their facial deformities repaired by a medical team from Singapore in May.
The team of 18 doctors, nurses and other medical personnel was on the first mission organised by Operation Smile Singapore.
It is the local arm of an international children's medical charity that provides free surgery for children with facial deformities like cleft lips, cleft palates and facial tumours.
Surgery to correct a cleft lip normally costs about $360.
The mission to Kampong Cham in Cambodia was funded partly by Operation Smile Singapore and partly by Mr Bean, a soya bean food and beverage retailer in Singapore.
Ms Jessica Gwee, 28, a trained nurse who went on the mission, told The New Paper that the team had to make do with a very basic set-up at the village hospital.
She said: 'The area where we screened patients was nothing more than a big tent, like the sort that you see at a fun fair.'
During the first part of the mission, Ms Gwee manned a station in the screening area, taking each prospective patient's vital signs - temperature, pulse, respiratory rate and blood pressure - to ascertain if they were fit for surgery.
Over the next few days, she assisted doctors in the operating theatre and recovery room.
She said: 'The patients are usually dehydrated after surgery, so we had to feed them (orange-flavoured powdered drink) Tang and make sure they were doing fine.'
Ms Rachel Woon, 31, a project coordinator for the mission, said people travelled to Kampong Cham from as far as the Cambodia-Vietnam border to get their facial deformities corrected.
They had learnt about the mission through radio, TV and newspapers.
She said: 'So many people came that the doctors had to take on a heavier load than they had originally planned.'
She said an 11-year-old boy with a cleft lip waited all day with his father for his turn, but his surgery slot had to be pushed to the next day.
'His father was angry that the surgery was delayed after they had waited the whole day, so he wanted to just leave with his son,' Ms Woon said.
'But the boy was sad - he told his father that he really wanted the surgery. We had to try really hard to convince the father to wait just one more day.'
Over four days, 92 patients had their deformities surgically corrected.
Ms Woon said her organisation hopes to attract medical workers to volunteer their expertise for upcoming Operation Smile missions.
She said: 'The people there were so grateful for the chance to have free surgery.
'Everyone who went on the mission said it was a great experience, and that they would want to do it again.'
Said Dr Vincent Yeow, 45: 'It was a good opportunity to help people, to work in a different environment, and to meet people from different countries.
'On such missions, you meet many new, like-minded people, learn a new language - such experiences are good for the soul.'
Added Ms Gwee: 'There was a lot of camaraderie, and everybody - doctors and nurses - all got along very well.
'There, we were all just regular human beings, helping fellow human beings.'
Wanted: Volunteers for Bangladesh
Operation Smile Singapore is looking for medical volunteers for its mission to Bangladesh in November.
WHO: Plastic surgeons, anaesthetists, paediatricians, dentists, nurses, speech therapists, child life specialists and biomedical technicians
COST: None. Participants need only bring money for some meals and shopping. Lodging and most meals will be provided.
CONTACT: Interested parties can log on to www.operationsmile.org.sg or e-mail Rachel Woon at firstname.lastname@example.org
This article was first published in The New Paper.