U-Voice: India

Dispatches from Durgapur U-Voice student storyteller Nicholas Nottage reports from Operation Smile's medical mission site in Durgapur, India, capturing stories of our patients and volunteers. Nicholas, who attends the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, is a longtime student

Dispatches from Durgapur

U-Voice student storyteller Nicholas Nottage reports from Operation Smile’s medical mission site in Durgapur, India, capturing stories of our patients and volunteers. Nicholas, who attends the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, is a longtime student volunteer for the organization, and he serves on the College Leadership Council. 

Photos and stories by Nicholas Nottage

Masud and his grandmother, Sohagi, pause for a photo as he waits to be called back for surgery. (Photo by Nicholas Nottage)


Seventeen years old and considering his career path, Masud said he loves school so much that he wants to be a teacher.

But school hasn’t always been easy for Masud, who lives in Harishchandrapur. He feels lucky that he has a great group of friends — friends who don’t see as no different from them in any way – but he grapples with classmates who tease him about his partially repaired cleft lip. They even tell him that he was has a cleft because he sinned in a past life.

Masud’s friends always swoop in to reassure him, and they always cheer him up on rough days. Masud says he’s also thankful for the support of his family members, especially his grandmother, Sohagi.

Even still, “I feel ashamed at seeing my relatives, since I was the only one in my family born this way,” Masud said through a translator.

Masud said he was beginning to lose hope – until he learned about Operation Smile.

He was out roaming around Harishchandrapur with his friends, and they heard a van making announcements about the upcoming medical mission at the cleft center in Durgapur.

Masud rushed home with the news and told his family what receiving the surgery would mean to him: He just wanted to feel more comfortable in his daily interactions with friends and family. After a quick discussion, the family decided to send Masud to the center with Sohagi and his grandfather.

Masud said he was most worried about the needles required for surgery. The child-life specialist helped him address his concerns. (Photo by Nicholas Nottage)

Masud received his procedure on the third day of surgery, after a few days of patiently waiting in the shelter. Masud said the main thing he was worried about was the needles required for surgery. With the help of the amazing child-life specialist and wonderful translators, Masud was able to practice with training needles to ease his nerves.

Upon seeing Masud in the recovery room, Sohagi said she hopes he won’t feel ashamed anymore and believes Masud is an even more handsome young man than before.

Masud said he couldn’t wait to get back to his friends in Harishchandrapur to show them the beautiful smile he’s had all his life.

Sadiya brought her 10-month-old son, Mohammad, to the site in Durgapur.


When Sadiya brought Mohammad home, she wondered why her first-born son was different from all the other kids.

The rest of her family was disappointed that Mohammad was born with his condition despite the rest of the family having a good background with no difficulties at birth. However, Sadiya was determined to provide for her kid and ensure he received all the love he deserved. She had never seen another child with a cleft, and had no training on how to properly feed her child. Nevertheless,  she was able to provide the proper nutrition to make her child a healthy baby boy.

Mohammed had an infectious laugh and all the nurses on the ward loved playing with him!


Shreyasee said she can still see the way the mother’s face lit up when she closes her eyes.

It was a beautiful end to the most difficult experience of her first medical mission. As a translator for Operation Smile, she had to tell a patient’s family that their child may not receive surgery due to a health complication. The family was heartbroken, Shreyasee recalled, and her attempts to comfort them were met with frustration. However, at the end of the week, a surgeon cleared the child for surgery, and the mother’s happiness has stayed with Shreyasee ever since.

Shreyasee, a third-year English honors student attending Durgapur Women’s College, is a part of our incredible group of  local volunteer translators. They serve as an important link between the doctors and patients, explaining procedures, easing nerves and connecting on a personal level.

This is Shreyasee’s second experience with Operation Smile since her first encounter in 2018. Shreyasee heard about the first mission since she is a part of the National Social Service group at her college, which sends volunteers to several programs in Durgapur. Shreyasee had heard of Operation Smile before, but only understood that it was an organization that worked with the cleft community.

When she arrived at the cleft center, Shreyasee was surprised by the large number of international volunteers from places all over the world who took time out of their lives to come to Durgapur and provide safe surgery to those who needed it. Afterward, Shreyasee kept in touch with the local team in case they ever had need of volunteers.

Her favorite part of the mission is playing with the patients in the child-life room, since she believes making the patients comfortable is crucial, especially in a challenging environment.

Blake & Sammy

It’s the same question that every high school senior despises: “What do you plan to do after high school?”

Family and friends always have good intentions when they ask it, of course, but it’s a question that’s always difficult to answer.

The high school volunteers have fielded this same question multiple times during Operation Smile’s medical mission this week in Durgapur, India.

Sammy, a senior at Mount Saint Joseph Academy in Pennsylvania, has been quick to answer. She will be attending Vanderbilt University and applied to be a global health major there. Ever since Sammy and her mom helped at Operation Smile’s cleft-care center in Bogota, Colombia, Sammy has become very involved with the organization and attributes her experiences in Bogota with her desire to delve into the global-health field.

Meanwhile, Blake, a senior at Maury High School in Norfolk, Virginia, prefers to keep an open mind. She hasn’t yet decided where she’ll attend university. She hopes that her experiences this week – seeing the variety of careers that come together during a medical mission – will give her insight into what she may want to do in the future. Growing up near Operation Smile Global Headquarters, it was hard for Blake not to hear about Operation Smile. But attending its International Student Leadership Conference was what shaped Blake’s desire to get more involved.

After the first screening day of the medical mission, both students said the most fascinating part was the cultural intrigue and expanding perspectives that went both ways between the patients and volunteers. Patients were constantly asking the girls for selfies, and Blake and Sammy were happy to pose and found it easy to smile after being around so many appreciative and wonderful families. Blake and Sammy spent most of the day around the patients, focusing on making the kids feel comfortable as well as presenting several education pieces about oral hygiene, burn care and nutrition. The students say it’s important for them to make an impact on the Durgapur community through this education, and they hope it benefits the lives of the local people.

Both girls hope to bring their experiences back with them to their schools to encourage their peers to get excited and try something new to give back to their communities and other communities around the world in any way they can!