Healing the Children in Colombia


In November of 2016, a team of doctors, nurses, anesthesiologists and other medical professionals from Healing the Children Northeast (HTCNE) traveled to Colombia. The team provided desperately needed medical care and surgeries to children, primarily focusing on cleft lips and cleft palates.

HTCNE describes these issues as:

“When the nose, lip, palate and jaw are supposed to fuse but fail to do so [during pregnancy], it results in a deformity known as a cleft lip or palate. The cleft lip is a gap in between the nose and mouth, while the cleft palate is a huge fissure on the roof of the mouth. This deformity can make eating, drinking, speaking and in some cases breathing difficult.”

Accompanying the HTCNE team were two professors and two graduate students, Jeanette and Bruna, from Mercy College’s Communications Disorders Program. They provided speech therapy and counseling to the children seen by HTCNE, and advocated for continued therapy by training parents and working with local organizations.

Below, Jeanette recounts her experience in Colombia.

La gente, the people.

In the comfort of my own home, I realize I’m diagnosing myself with my first Medical Mission Trip withdrawal. In retrospect, the mission was life altering and most of the impact was made by la gente, the people, I met on the trip. Small or tall, these people etched each of their names into a special place within me.

To begin, the Healing the Children team was incredible.

Medical professionals from Healing the Children NortheastIt was a large gathering of diverse people, all vastly knowledgeable in their own field, from the nurses and doctors who stopped at nothing to ensure each case was a success story, to the talented photographers who captured each smile and hug.

The president of HTCNE is Bob Ryan, who joined this and many other trips. To make a very long story short, Bob connected with the Henry Schein Cares Foundation, which generously donated $10,000 of medical equipment for this trip. Thanks to HSCF for “helping health happen” in Colombia.

I cannot forget to mention an anesthesiologist who allowed two lowly speech graduate students (myself and Bruna) to overlook amazing surgeries and shadow a case for a day while explaining every step of the process thoroughly.

My professors became mentors.

They paved a path of knowledge even deeper within my growing and inquisitive speechie mind. Each client we consulted gave me the opportunity to piece together their individual puzzle, putting what I’ve leaned in the classroom to work, in a real-life setting. The education fostered within these days will forever go unmatched and irreplaceable. The bonds shared over delicious Colombian cuisine on a mountaintop restaurant, stories shared between roommates and humbling open-door bus rides cannot be explained.

Being back in America is no treat without UNIMA.

UNIMA is an organization run by women who enforce the idea that ladies are “poderosa y hermosa,” powerful and beautiful. Its mission is to improve the quality of life and help place a smile back on the faces of children and young people who present genetic problems such as cleft lips and palates. UNIMA helps families from the most vulnerable populations in Colombia by coordinating the actions of professionals and institutions, such as Healing the Children.

These amazing ladies catered to our team endlessly, tirelessly, and passionately. They took great care in making sure that even clients who weren’t there for surgeries saw the speech team, because they were aware of how important speech therapy is. Their newest goal for their patients is to enable more access to speech therapy services, which is groundbreaking in Colombia. How I wish I could have packed the UNIMA team up in my luggage, but alas, I was only allowed a carry-on!

Parents were on the front line for this trip.

2016-11-08-12-40-25Many fought for their children to be screened and hoped for the surgeries that would ensure a better life. These parents often traveled hours to Santa Marta despite their limited resources, but all with a common goal: to help their children.

The parents on this trip often left me speechless, humbled, and in tears. The gratitude in their eyes, in the strength of their hugs and in the power of their words will never leave me. One parent wished for God to kiss our toes and hands to help us continue our work in helping children like hers.

These parents solidified my thought that my main purpose here on earth is to help as many people in any way I can. The resilience in each parent showed me that no matter where you’re from, anything is possible if you fight for it.

Finally and most importantly, each and every child that I came across had hope, power, and love gushing from their bodies.

Each hug and every wide eye and smiling face looking up at me motivated my soul. The bright smile that would flash across their faces when we showed them a trick to enhance their speech was such an intrinsic, powerful feeling. I felt super human at times: Jeanette Torres, Super Speechie! In retrospect, it was the children who were superheroes in their own right, not me. I guess that’s the thing with superheroes: they have the ability to make you feel as important as they are.

Para la gente, to the people involved in all aspects of the trip, thank you endlessly.



This entry was originally posted on the Mercy College Communications Disorders Program blog, run by Shari Salzhauer Berkowitz

Written by Jeanette Torres, with contributions and photos from Bob Ryan.