Inspiration from Operation Smile Mission in India

Annika Castillo, an aspiring medical doctor from Cresskill, New Jersey, made a significant choice during her first year at the Academy of the Holy Angels: She joined the Operation Smile club.

This February, Castillo (AHA ’25) participated in a mission trip to Jhansi, India, that helped her confirm her decision to pursue a career in medicine. As an Op Smile volunteer, she provided vital health care information to local families, and observed three surgeries. Castillo pledges that this was the first of many Op Smile journeys she will take to assist children who are awaiting free, corrective surgeries for cleft lip and palate.

Since she returned home, Castillo has dedicated her time to raising awareness about Operation Smile. In fact, this global non-profit was established in 1982 by AHA alumna Kathleen Magee and her husband, William Magee Jr., a plastic/craniofacial surgeon.

“When I heard about previous Operation Smile surgical programs, I knew that I wanted to be a part of it,” Castillo shared. “I love to travel, I love to immerse myself in new cultures, and I love children. I want to be a doctor, so I knew that to go into this program and be surrounded by medical workers, interact with patients, and possibly see a surgery, would be an incredible opportunity.”

She added, “I had an even better experience than I could have imagined for myself. The kids were adorable and the sweetest people I have ever met. All the volunteers were super friendly and I was glad to see how passionate they all were about Operation Smile. My time in Jhansi was a completely new and life-changing experience.”

That week, Op Smile also changed the lives of the 113 children who underwent successful surgeries.

“My responsibilities focused on the children,” Castillo noted. “The purpose of a student volunteer is to make the kids feel more comfortable before and after their surgeries. Our role also includes education.”

Before leaving for India, Castillo made instructional posters about dental hygiene, nutrition, CPR, and burn care and prevention. She and a partner presented this important information to families in Jhansi while they were visiting the pre-op and post-op wards, the child life room, and the patient shelter.

Castillo also prepared for her journey by collecting games, toys, crayons, toothbrushes, and toothpaste for the children. She wanted to be sure each child left the hospital with at least one positive memory about singing and playing games with Op Smile volunteers.

“My favorite role was having one-on-one time to play with the kids. I was really able to connect with the kids by playing Uno, Just Dance, soccer, and other games with them,” Castillo said.

During her time in Jhansi, Castillo was able to enter the operating room and observe three surgeries, including cleft palate and lip revisions.

“The surgeries were breathtaking, and I was so lucky to be able to watch as the surgeons worked with such care and precision to transform someone's life. It still amazes me that it only takes 45 minutes for a cleft lip surgery to be completed,” Castillo said.

She noted that her time in the operating room reinforced her commitment to pursue a medical career.

“Before going into the surgical program, I thought that the language barrier would be a big challenge. I was surprised to find out that it wasn't an issue at all. Actions speak more than words. Through body language, smiles, and tone, I was able to convey my message to the kids.

“The most challenging part of the mission was watching the kids go home. Not all of the kids were able to get the surgeries done because of medical reasons. It was sad knowing that not all of the kids were able to get their operation completed; however, I am relieved to know that they will still have an opportunity to have their operation done. Operation Smile isn't a temporary program, there will be more surgical programs in that area to reach everyone.”

Castillo and other teen volunteers were able to visit some of the historical forts in Jhansi. Before heading home, she also stopped at the impressive Humayun’s Tomb in New Delhi.

In July 2023, Castillo traveled Lima, Perú, for Operation Smile’s International Student Leadership Conference. This convocation is one step toward being chosen for a mission trip.

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