As I have led medical missions internationally, there often occurs an event that becomes etched in my mind and I cannot forget. This happened most recently in Mauritania, located in northwest Africa. We were there to support a nutrition center run by two Swiss missionaries in the capital city of Nouakchott. The center cared for severely malnourished children. It was heart breaking to see these children clinging for their lives.
Significant poverty, created by a “spider web” of causes, is common in this part of the world literally surrounded by the Sahara Desert. The beauty of the Sahara at sunrise was quite a contrast to the prevalent desperation and hopelessness that permeated everything. Yet, out of this came a reminder that something good, even beautiful can be found. That something was a smile, a smile from two children and it broke me.
Mauritania was my first time serving in an all Muslim country. I admit to having some trepidation but that quickly dissolved as I saw how appreciative, kind, and accepting the people were. The poverty, the need, the hardships they faced daily quickly became apparent as the days went by. The children though stole my heart. Despite the difficulties of their lives, they, like the countless children I have seen all over the world, were still happy. Life had not broken their spirits yet. Time would change that soon enough.
The two children, a brother and sister, came to the clinic with their mother. She was dressed in the traditional “Malafa” with only a small portion of her face showing. I was immediately struck by how thin and dirty they were. Neither child smiled or looked at me. They were too afraid and as I found out later, I was the first “white person” they had seen. I quickly began to do all I could to get them to relax. Simple “smiley face” stickers did it! I placed one on the back of each child’s hand and you would have thought I had given them their dream present! Their eyes opened wide and both broke into a big smile showing teeth in need of much repair but still joyous all the same. I had a picture taken with them to remember that moment, a moment when my heart was “broken by a smile”, in this case two smiles. Even in the face of great need, children can be happy.
I write this story to ask, ”When was the last time you allowed yourself to be ‘broken by a smile” be it from a child, a grateful patient, or appreciative family member? When was the last time you let your guard down, put your busyness aside, and let a smile remind you of how fortunate you are to do what you do?” What you do only a few are privileged to do. We all need to be reminded for it is all too easy to forget in today's world of medicine. Let your heart be broken by a smile, you will be glad you did.
Thank you as always for all you do,
Andy Lamb, MD