UI nursing professor volunteers with Operation Smile


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When Sandra Daack-Hirsch hopped on a westbound plane in 1994, she didn’t know what to expect.

When she landed in the Philippines, she found a group of islands filled with families who needed medical help and expertise.

And she gave it to them.

She discovered a family in which five of the seven children suffered from cleft lip/palate — a condition in which a gap forms in either the upper lip and the roof of the mouth. The University of Iowa assistant professor of nursing cared for three of them.

She developed a bond with the mother, who helped her find others in the village who needed surgery for the condition. After returning home, Daack-Hirsch received several letters from the woman in her native language.

“The first time it was really exciting for me to be able to go someplace and not be someone’s mom, someone’s wife, and really just be me and do what I do,” said Daack-Hirsch, looking at her husband.

She has been to the Philippines 14 times to help people suffering from cleft lip/palate.

She conducted research and volunteered with an Iowa-based team working with Operation Smile, a nonprofit organization that provides surgeries and help to thousands of individuals, mainly children, who are born with a cleft lip or cleft palate.

Surgery allows patients to eat and speak normally, but it’s difficult to find in less-developed countries.

The 48-year-old prepared hundreds of patients for surgery, cared for them afterwards, and helped them understand the condition. Using her hands to accentuate her point, she described her primary role as that of a researcher as well as a nurse, focusing on gathering information and helping patients.

“You might get 500 people going through screening, but we may only have enough operating rooms and surgery times for about 350,” said Daack-Hirsch, playing with her glasses as she spoke. “It really was hard to turn people away.”

She spent three or four days per two-week trip locating families with whom the group had worked to see if other family members also suffered from the genetic condition. For many, Daack-Hirsch was their sole source of information about cleft lip/palate, and she built strong bonds with families.

“When you’re discussing things by e-mail and long-distance phone calls, it’s really hard to know what they’re experiencing,” she said. “I got an appreciation for how hard it was to go out and locate families when you don’t have telephone books and people aren’t online.”

Mike Hirsch observed his wife as she described the annual trips as well as a two-month visit that took her away from their two children, Leah, 23, and Will, 19.

“Well, we all missed Sandy, but life had to go on,” he said. “My work got in the way sometimes, so [Sandy’s mother] came and helped.”

Leah Hirsch recalls missing her mother a great deal when she would go away.

“Things were definitely different when Mom was gone, but … it just became normal,” she said. “I remember that a few weeks before she would go, we would always go through our toys and decide which ones we didn’t want so Mom could take them with her to give to the kids.”

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