Johnson, 26, and Airhart, 24, are registered nurses (RNs) in the pediatric unit at Miller Children’s Hospital in Long Beach. Both will join Operation of Hope’s sixth surgical mission to Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe, on Oct. 4.
Operation of Hope is a nonprofit medical foundation comprised of an all-volunteer surgical team founded by retired ear, nose and throat physician Joseph Clawson in 1989.
According to Jennifer Trubenbach, executive director of Operation of Hope, the foundation has performed more than 2,400 free surgeries to children and young adults with facial deformities in Ecuador and Zimbabwe. The team of doctors and nurses goes on three missions per year.
Trubenbach said the trips to Harare’s St. Anne’s Hospital began in October 2006 and more than 450 children have been helped in Zimbabwe to date. Due to the republic’s political conflicts in recent years, the Zimbabwean medical system has suffered and many villagers do not understand what facial deformities mean, Trubenbach added.
“I have never seen as many drastic facial deformities as I have in Zimbabwe,” Trubenbach said. “Parents living in outlying villages don’t understand why their child was born with a birth defect, and witch doctors will tell parents that God is punishing them. Part of what we do on our missions is to educate parents that facial deformities are not their fault.”
During the two-week trip next month that will require a total of four days of travel from Southern California to Harare and back, Trubenbach said the 12-member team will be working 12- to 14-hour days and performing between 70 and 80 surgeries. However, one weekend will be spent enjoying tourist activities and entertainment.
Johnson said she has been an RN at Miller Children’s Hospital for four years and the reason why she became a nurse was to help children in need. Johnson said she was researching different volunteer opportunities online when she found an application for Operation of Hope.
“I’m looking forward to going to Zimbabwe and I’m really excited,” Johnson said. “I knew in middle school that I wanted to be a nurse and work with children because they are so fun-loving, sweet and caring.”
Airhart, Johnson’s co-worker and friend, said she became a nurse because she wanted to travel internationally. Airhart has been an RN at Miller for 14 months.
Airhart said Operation of Hope is one of the few organizations that permit nurses to volunteer who have completed only one year of professional experience. Airhart and Johnson have been collecting donations of medical supplies and children’s (especially boy’s) clothing and shoes to take on the trip.
“I can’t wait to go,” Airhart said. “Michelle asked me if I wanted to go to Africa with her and this is the kind of thing I have been wanting to do for a long time.
“When I first started nursing school, I wasn’t sure if I was going to work with kids or adults, but I enjoy kids. You have to be creative.”
Trubenbach said Operation of Hope accepts many nurses who have pediatric experience, but resourcefulness is an important quality for volunteers.
“There isn’t the typical computer technology in Zimbabwe that nurses are used to here,” Trubenbach said. “Some nurses find themselves outside of their comfort zones. The volunteers work alongside the Zimbabwean nurses and those nurses are fluent in English and in the tribal dialects.
“You become very emotionally involved with the patients because you learn every name and every story. The wonderful thing about going there is we’re able to do something that makes things better and gives people hope.”