Before Sabrina Ghiddi became involved with Operation Smile’s work in Ghana as a non-medical volunteer in 2013, she didn’t know that the organisation existed.
However, the Italian transplant did know that she wanted to dedicate her life to helping those in need.
“When I came to Ghana, I was looking for volunteer opportunities and a lady from a malaria (non-governmental organisation) connected me with Operation Smile so that I could attend a medical mission,” Sabrina said. “I was very excited, despite not knowing exactly how I could contribute.
“All of it was very much by chance.”
Happenstance may have led Sabrina to Operation Smile, but her passion ensured that she would forge a path from starting out as an assistant to child life specialists on medical missions to becoming a full-time employee of Operation Smile as its regional manager of western and southern Africa.
Under her leadership, Operation Smile’s work in Ghana transformed from being on the brink of ending to becoming firmly established when she registered Operation Smile Ghana as a domestic non-profit organisation in 2015. Since then, the foundation has experienced incredible growth and success that’s been fuelled by her relentless commitment to Ghanaian patients and families affected by cleft.
The April 2015 medical mission to Cape Coast proved to be the turning point.
In the months leading up to what would be her final mission as a volunteer, Sabrina learned of the possibility that Operation Smile was considering suspending its work in Ghana due to low patient turnouts. However, Sabrina knew those numbers didn’t reflect the need for cleft surgery in the country. She knew that the patients and families were out there, mostly scattered around Ghana’s multitude of rural villages, but they weren’t being reached nor empowered to seek Operation Smile’s care.
Inspired to do more to help, she, along with then-volunteer Clement Ofosuhemeng, mounted aggressive cleft awareness and patient recruitment campaigns ahead of the Cape Coast mission. The message of hope and healing resulted in a turnout of more than 400 potential patients, proving that the patients were, indeed, out there.
“I think that before you move on from a place, you need to be very, very sure that there aren’t patients who need you.” Sabrina said. “I knew that this was something that I could contribute to. So I engaged Simone, my husband, who was able to get a $500 sponsorship from his company for us to go out and find these patients.”
In their free time, Sabrina and Simone rode their motorcycle throughout Ghana’s far-flung communities in search of patients and families affected by cleft – no easy task as most of the rural roads there are pocked with dangerous potholes.
“Creating awareness, engaging community members to champion our message and finding people in need was very fulfilling. On the other end, we had a huge responsibility – missing a village or a hospital could have kept someone from learning about Operation Smile and the surgical care we provide,” Sabrina said. “We tried to go everywhere we could, engaging as many people as possible. In particular, we approached the pastors of Christian churches and imams of Muslim mosques, who would then disseminate information about Operation Smile to their followers.
“Because of the stigma of cleft here, we knew that the pastor, who is someone that people really believe and trust, would be the best person to transfer the message to try to remove the superstition.”
Though their patient recruitment effort was a resounding success, the Cape Coast mission was only equipped to provide 75 surgeries – the amount of equipment, supplies and volunteers available were based on the patient turnouts of the previous two missions. The team stretched its resources to deliver 90 surgeries.
“It was heartbreaking for me and the team to witness hundreds of families with babies and kids with cleft be turned away,” Sabrina said. “That moment changed the course and direction of Operation Smile Ghana, but also the direction of my life, my values and, I believe, the purpose of my life.”
Suddenly, it became clear that the need for cleft surgery in Ghana was massive. Operation Smile then strengthened its investment in the country, hiring Sabrina to be regional manager and began conducting two large-scale international medical missions per year. Later in 2015, she officially incorporated Operation Smile Ghana and hired Clement as the foundation’s patient coordinator and Lucy Apeajei, another Cape Coast volunteer, as its programme coordinator.
“Who would’ve ever thought that three volunteers on that mission would become the Operation Smile Ghana team within the year,” Sabrina said. “We are very different from each other, but we are driven by the same passion and joy in going the extra mile to serve others. I believe that whatever you are passionate about, you will succeed as long as you are willing to work hard enough to do it. I think this is the key of our success.”
With volunteer cleft surgeon Dr. Opoku Ampomah, the head of Ghana’s National Reconstructive Plastic Surgery and Burn Centre, serving as medical director, Operation Smile Ghana began attracting medical professionals from across the country to serve as volunteers and benefit from the training and education opportunities offered at the missions.
Since then, Sabrina has been steadily raising the organisation’s profile among Ghana’s business community, securing critical corporate partnerships that have fostered the exponential growth of the foundation.
In little more than two years of existence, Operation Smile Ghana notched a major milestone when it hosted its first local mission comprised almost entirely of Ghanaian volunteers at Eastern Regional Hospital in Koforidua in January 2018.
“It is truly wonderful, what we’ve been able to achieve,” Sabrina said. “This could have never been possible without my team, the dedicated volunteers, the compassion and support from our sponsors, local stakeholders and board of directors.
“We have achieved a lot so far but there is still more to be done – we will not stop until we heal every child with a cleft in Ghana. We know that the responsibility that we have in the country is remarkable, but the fulfillment of our work is priceless.”