Summer 2016 Fellow: Lucy Willis, Operation Smile

Ms. Lucy Willis is currently completing a Hilton Prize Coalition Fellowship through Operation Smile, the international medical charity dedicated to improving the health and lives of children worldwide through access to surgical care. Lucy is currently a student at Emory University, receiving her bachelor’s degree in Business Administration, with a concentration in the field of Health Innovation. In this blog post, she writes about participating in Operation Smile’s annual International Student Leadership Conference (ISLC) in San Diego, which centered on the student-driven Until We Heal campaign.

Students Addressing the Global Lack of Access to Safe Surgery

by Lucy Willis

Just over a year ago, I was staying with the Kutump tribe in Papua New Guinea on a cultural immersion trip to the mountainous region of the country. During one of the group’s guided hikes, we came across a small building that looked a bit like a trailer home, empty except for a table and small cabinet in each room. It was the first concrete building we had seen within a thirty-minute drive of the village, and since all the locals lived in straw huts, we knew it was a significant place. When we asked the guide what it was, his voice swelled with pride as he answered, “This is our medical clinic!” and added, “It is the only one for 150 km!”

While it’s easy for those of us in developed countries to take our access to basic medical services for granted, two billion people face the same obstacles to receiving care as the members of the Kutump tribe. About one third of the global population lacks access to surgical care while millions more lack access to safe, effective and well-timed surgery. In order to address this increasingly global problem, Operation Smile launched the Until We Heal campaign, a student-driven initiative to advocate for children around the world who do not have access to the care they need. As a Hilton Prize Coalition Fellow with Operation Smile, I have been able to participate in this campaign and work with medical professionals and students from all over the world who are committed to solving this problem. Last month, I attended Operation Smile’s annual International Student Leadership Conference (ISLC) in San Diego, which centered on the Until We Heal campaign.

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(The country flags of all participants at Operation Smile’s annual International Student Leadership Conference)

Hundreds of students from across the world gathered at this conference. We talked about how, in many cases, this lack of access is the result of one or more barriers to care that exist within a patient’s society. Surgical costs, poor medical or transportation infrastructure and misconceptions about surgery are just a few of the most common obstacles that our patients face every day; therefore, it is crucial that we as an organization work to eliminate these problems in order to accommodate as many patients as possible. We shared how we as students are making an impact. Our students have walked hours to a hospital in order to represent the journey many patients make when traveling to our mission sites. They have held safe surgery summits, hosted guest speakers and participated in a Hackathon to brainstorm solutions to various global health issues.

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 (Ana Blandon, an Operation Smile student and volunteer, shares how gaining access to safe surgery saved her life)

As the global healthcare landscape changes, Operation Smile is constantly having to re-evaluate how we provide care. What is our target group of patients? Is there a backlog that needs to be addressed? What cultural, financial or structural factors are preventing patients from receiving medical treatment, and how can we shape our program strategies to overcome these obstacles? These are the types of questions I am helping to think through today. This fellowship, and the conference, provided me with first-hand experience working with a diverse group of people, as well as a more complete understanding of innovation and implementation in public health programming.

Operation Smile is a global leader in surgery, and has been working for years to eliminate patients’ barriers to care. While eradicating lack of access to healthcare is undoubtedly a lofty goal, its success ultimately rests on that same ability to overcome various barriers to care. If the current model of operations is adapted to include more country specific programs and expand these programs throughout different regions, we can dramatically increase access to safe surgery around the world. However, this goal cannot be achieved unless we raise awareness and collectively take the initiative to work towards a solution. By allowing hundreds of students from around the world to take action through the Until We Heal Campaign, Operation Smile is expanding the reach of the organization beyond its mission sites while engaging youth in the challenge of overcoming barriers to care. My name is Lucy Willis; I am a Hilton Prize Coalition Fellow and I have taken the pledge that: I will not stop Until We Heal every child.

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