Leading with her heart, St. Bonaventure senior sees a world of possibilities during summer internship with Operation Smile
By Beth Eberth
College students often use internships as a way to narrow the focus of career options.
For St. Bonaventure University senior Isabella “Izzy” Aguilera, it helped her expand her vision.
This summer, the health science major from Phoenix, Arizona, interned in the Education and Training Department of Operation Smile, an international medical charity that provides free surgeries for children and young adults in developing countries who are born with cleft lip, cleft palate or other facial deformities.
Operation Smile mobilizes volunteer medical teams – including anesthesiologists, surgeons, biomedical technicians, dentists, nurses, pediatricians and speech pathologists – to conduct the surgical missions around the world. A cleft is a gap in the mouth that did not close during the early stages of pregnancy. As a result, children born with a cleft condition may have an opening in the lip or the roof of their mouth – or both.
“All of Operation Smiles’ medical missions have a training and education component; the organization also does missions that are just education focused,” explained Aguilera, who is pursuing a business minor and is member of the university’s Division I swimming and diving team.
Many of Aguilera’s internship responsibilities in the Education and Training Department focused on ensuring paperwork and certifications for volunteers were complete. She worked most closely with those in the Resident Leadership Program and those undergoing American Heart Association trainings.
The Resident Leadership Program offers resident physicians in anesthesia, plastic surgery and pediatrics the opportunity to attend a medical program alongside experienced Operation Smile medical professionals. In 2003, the 35-year-old charity began partnering with the American Heart Association as an international training center for Basic Life Support (BLS) and Pediatric Advanced Life Support (PALS) courses.
Dr. Claire Watson, an assistant professor and director of the university’s public health program, describes Aguilera as ambitious and compassionate.
“We are fortunate to have her as a Bonnie,” said Watson. “She has a huge heart and shares it freely with her friends, teammates, peers and those involved with Operation Smile. The organization is near and dear to her and she readily opens herself up to those patients. Her ambition to learn more about that organization, their mission, operations, medical staff and patients is admirable.”
Aguilera first became involved in Operation Smile at age 15 when she participated in the charity’s international student leadership conference for high school students and went on a healthcare education mission to the Philippines.
“I knew about their internship program, so I applied back in February, then went through interviews,” she said.
Being born with a cleft palate herself is what drew her to the organization.
“I feel my responsibility is for those who weren’t as fortunate to have access to plastic surgery,” she said.
In the United States, most clefts are repaired during early childhood. In developing countries, children face social stigmas and financial barriers.
“This (surgery) improves their quality of life, allows them to talk, go to school, or socialize,” said Aguilera.
Because she was based at Operation Smile’s headquarters in Virginia Beach, Virginia, Aguilera not only learned about her department, but all facets of the organization. She also was able to meet medical volunteers and patients firsthand during a June surgical mission to Madagascar.
Aguilera joined the mission as a field journalist and photographer in the charity’s U-Voice student ambassador program, where she interviewed patients and their families. When she wasn’t talking with patients during the 10-day trip, Aguilera spent a lot of time with the pre- and post-surgical teams absorbing everything she could.
“They let me shadow them, ask questions. I spent a lot of time in the anesthesia unit, where I could learn about all of the aspects of the surgery, and ran patients back and forth to the OR,” she said.
Aguilera was particularly moved by one patient, a toddler the St. Bonaventure student followed from the girl’s initial screening through her surgery. The young girl, her mother and brother all had cleft palates, although the girl was the only one selected for surgery.
During her screening, the girl was scared and had cried nonstop until she saw Aguilera.
“She stopped crying and smiled. She just bonded with me. So I sat with her and then waited for her during the operation,” Aguilera said.
She found it easier to overcome language barriers with the younger patients. Translators were on hand who spoke Malagasy and French, but Aguilera said she found balls, bubbles and hand signals to work just as well.
“It was cool to have that shared experience with them, even though we didn’t speak the same language,” she said.
In Madagascar, 121 surgeries were performed on individuals from babies to adults. Even those who aren’t selected for surgery undergo a health screening and may receive other medical treatment, such as assistance from doctors who work with patients on feeding strategies.
Aguilera was recruited to attend St. Bonaventure as a member of the swimming and diving team. In addition to wanting to dive at a collegiate level, she knew she wanted to be in health care and wanted a change of scenery far from Arizona.
In the short term, she would love to return to Operation Smile after graduation as a program coordinator, organizing the missions and traveling and working with health professions in myriad fields and specialties. In the long term? She’s still not sure. Maybe studies to be a physician assistant or nurse.
“Izzy is just starting to identify what and who she will be in the world of health professions, but regardless of her path, we will be fortunate to count her as a peer as she’s leading with her heart, and that will benefit every patient she interacts with,” Watson said.