Little Egg Harbor Teen Helps Spread Smiles in Philippines

Trip With Operation Smile Could Change Donovan Catholic Senior’s Future
By RICK MELLERUP | Sep 07, 2016
Supplied Photo

When Brianna Lonergan got involved with Operation Smile she probably didn’t realize how much that decision was going to change her life.

Little could she have imagined that it would lead to her traveling halfway around the globe. Little could she have imagined that it would lead to her taking malaria pills and dealing with sweltering 100-degree-plus temperatures. Little could she have imagined joining that club would lead to her decision to study medicine in college.

Operation Smile, founded in 1982 by Dr. William P. Magee, a plastic surgeon, and his wife, Kathleen, a nurse and clinical social worker, operates on disadvantaged children’s disfiguring cleft lips and palates across the world. The not-for-profit NGO (non-governmental organization) has performed well over 200,000 such procedures in numerous countries. In September alone Operation Smiles teams will fan out to Rwanda, Colombia, Guatemala, Morocco, Brazil, Thailand, Paraguay, Vietnam, Madagascar, Venezuela, Philippines, Peru, Dominican Republic, Mexico and South Africa.

Lonergan, a Little Egg Harbor resident and a senior at Donovan Catholic High School, became involved with the charity in sixth grade and continued through middle and high school.

“There was a club in my grade school and I joined with some of my friends,” Lonergan explained. “My friends left pretty quickly, but I got really involved. There are three levels – the club council, the regional council for New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware and the national council. I moved up to be a member of the regional council.”

Lonergan was involved in fundraising, publicity and organizing efforts. Her work didn’t go unnoticed.

“Because of my hard work and dedication to Operation Smile from sixth to 11th grade I was chosen to attend a medical mission!” she said.

Lonergan was originally scheduled to join a team of doctors, nurses, dentists and volunteers in a mission to Nicaragua, but that mission developed problems so she instead joined a team headed to the Philippines, the place, by the way, that Operation Smile was born. She left on June 22 for a two-week adventure, and an adventure it certainly was.

“My journey was the trip of a lifetime,” Lonergan exclaimed.

First of all, the trip itself, the actual travel, was grueling.

She flew direct from Newark International to Hong Kong. From there she flew to the Philippine capital of Manila and then on to the province – the geographical equivalent of a U.S. state – of Isabela.

“The flight from Newark to Hong Kong took 17 hours! That was longer than usual because there was some sort of volcano in Alaska and the flight, which went over the polar ice cap, had to be rerouted. Then our luggage was lost in Manila.”

Welcome to the world of air travel.

Her final destination was the small city of Cauayan, population 129,523, in Isabela on the island of Luzon. The heat was incredible.

“Hot? Oh my goodness! It reached 109 degrees and this was their winter! A lot of the places didn’t have air conditioning. We couldn’t sleep. And, respecting the local culture, we couldn’t wear shorts. And we had to drink bottled water and that was warm, too.”

Lonergan was part of a “mega-mission,” with Operation Smile teams dispatched to points throughout the archipelago. Three hundred and eight surgeries were performed overall, with Lonergan’s group performing 70 in four days.

She’ll never forget “Screening Day.”

“Before the team arrives they have a local coordinator spread the word that they’re coming,” said Lonergan. “Radio is big in the Philippines; they used a lot of radio. And they’ll screen people before we get there and do things like give them antibiotics to get them ready for surgery. On screening day candidates for surgery get checkups, their vital signs are checked, their nutrition will be checked. There are about 20 steps they have to go through. Ninety-three potential patients came in, and their families, so multiply 93 by four, and they were all in a parking lot. My job was to try to help to keep people calm.”

Operation Smile not only performs surgeries but provides pre- and post-op care, helps establish permanent medical facilities and provides residents of visited areas with health education. Lonergan was given a wide variety of duties.

“I worked with a child health specialist to relax the children before surgery and to introduce them to medical equipment. I was also required to teach health modules such as how to brush your teeth, how to wash your hands, to boil water, eat nutritiously and to stay hydrated, to patients at the hospital and by going to schools and orphanages. I went to eight schools and an orphanage.”

Lonergan learned how true an old joke is.

“What do you call a person who speaks two languages? Bilingual. What do you call a person who speaks three languages? Trilingual. What do you call a person who speaks one language? An American!”

She was provided with a translator for her classes, but she discovered that she could communicate at a rudimentary level by herself with smiles, combinations of sign language, a few words of Spanish (the Philippines were colonized by Spain from 1521 through 1898; indeed the country was named after Spanish King Philip II), and English.

English is taught as a second language in much of the world. In the Philippines, as the result of the U.S. colonization from 1898 to 1946, it is even more important, an official language along with Filipino, a standardized version of Tagalog, the fastest spoken language in the world.

“The schools teach English. They (students) know English by about the second grade,” said Lonergan. “And a lot of their words are based off of Spanish or American words.”

Lonergan, who got to actually watch some surgeries, bonded with the kids.

“I got attached to almost every one of them,” she said. “I ended up loving it. But three kids became very close.

“There was John, 6 months old. I watched his surgery.

“There was Princess Maia – that was her name; she wasn’t royalty – who was 8½ years old. She had a cleft palate and she couldn’t speak English or any language. We didn’t know if she would qualify – the older you are, the more problems there tend to be. But she qualified in the end.

“Then there was Divine.”

Divine, 9 months, had been abandoned by her parents after being born with a cleft palate. That isn’t unusual, said Lonergan, because in many parts of the world being born with a cleft palate or lip is a sign of a bad cloud hanging over the entire family.

“They couldn’t do surgery on her because she needed antibiotics,” said Lonergan. “But they were able to fit her with a cross-palate bottle so she could drink more easily and they put her on a priority list for their next visit.”

The trip and her work changed Lonergan’s life.

“I always sort of knew I wanted to do something in the medical field, but when I went on the mission I still had second thoughts. Not anymore. Now when I go to college I want to study to be a physician’s assistant.”

Lonergan also wants to continue to be involved with Operation Smile.

“In college I can go on one other mission,” she said. “And after college I can go on unlimited missions.”

The great explorer Ferdinand Magellan, who discovered the Philippines for the Spanish, and was killed there, led the first expedition to circumnavigate the world. Considering the number of countries Operation Smile visits, Lonergan may someday duplicate that feat.

All because of a club she joined in elementary school.

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