The Unsung: NJ nurse travels the world to make sure children can smile
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Claire Donaghy is just as much at home in Central Africa as she is in New Jersey.
The William Paterson University nursing professor said she's found a second home in Rwanda, a nation she first visited with Operation Smile in 2014. The 68-year-old is eager to return in either April or November.
"The country is beautiful and the people are wonderful. They are so welcoming and trying hard to educate their nurses to high standards," she said. "That's not to say I won't go other places."
Since her first mission with an Operation Smile surgical team in 2007 took her to Egypt, Donaghy has been lending her expertise all over Asia, Africa and the Caribbean. Twice a year, on average, she makes a trip with dozens of other volunteers for a now 40-year-old nonprofit.
Operation Smile, established in 1982, provides free surgery for children and young adults with cleft lips and palates. The international charity is active in more than 60 countries and has more than 6,000 active medical volunteers. With that massive medical volunteer base, annual surgeries surpass 12,000.
During each trip, or mission, Donaghy said, volunteers can screen up to 350 candidates for surgery. The missions can take 11 days. Operations typically span five. It can appear chaotic at times, though it's Donaghy's task to keep any legitimate turmoil to a minimum — even if that means building some shelving in a bare-bones Ethiopian hospital.
"Many times conditions are less than optimal, and you have to put things together," she said. "You thrive on the energy of patients and volunteers."
Through 2022, Donaghy has been involved with about 30 Operation Smile missions, including one on the U.S. Navy hospital ship Comfort. For more than two-thirds of them, she has served as a clinical coordinator. One of four team leaders on a mission, the clinical coordinator oversees the scheduling and management of screenings, operations and surgical teams.
Increasingly, the volunteers she helps coordinate are local volunteers rather than international ones.
"The objective is self-sufficiency and safe surgery," Donaghy said. "It's not a fly-by-night operation. They set up relationships to sustain a program."
In Rwanda specifically, the charity is working to provide stability to a nation with just two credentialed plastic surgeons and more than 13 million people. Donaghy has worked toward that goal in her own right, by teaching, mentoring and developing a curriculum at the University of Rwanda School of Nursing as part of a Fulbright scholarship program in 2014 and 2015.
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More recently she has been working with Operation Smile's mentoring and educational initiative, the Champion Program. In March 2022, she paired with a volunteer clinical coordinator in Bushenge, Rwanda, named Esperance to share knowledge and best practices.
"We learned so much from each other," Donaghy said. "I want to see continued growth there and continue doing this as long as I'm physically able."
Donaghy spent three decades as a nurse before signing on with Operation Smile. With work, co-parenting two daughters and academics consuming most of her time, Donaghy said, she didn't have time to take on such a commitment. She was instead volunteering locally at animal shelters and with Habitat for Humanity.
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Then, her schedule opened up. Her daughters grew up. She earned a doctorate in nursing from Rutgers University and a post-master’s certificate from Columbia University. She moved to Monmouth County from North Jersey and looked to get involved as a volunteer with a surgical nongovernmental organization.
"Operation Smile was a great fit," Donaghy said. "If I could do more, I would. There are just so many Operation Smile volunteers. They need to spread it out."
She signed up in 2005, but it wasn't until two years later that she received the chance to volunteer in one of 40 simultaneous missions commemorating Operation Smile's 25th anniversary. The opportunity took her to Cairo among a team of 53 nurses, plastic surgeons, dentists, students and other specialists.
Over the next two days, they screened more than 300 potential candidates for surgery. Ages ranged from 5 days to about 50 years old.
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Photos were taken. Vital signs were recorded. Heights and weights were obtained.
The team was forced to exclude infants younger than 6 months old and candidates who had other medical issues. Others progressed to blood testing, and some made it to surgery. Cleft lip surgeries took about an hour. Repairing a cleft palate took roughly two.
Recovery took a bit longer. That's where Donaghy stepped in.
Covering the postoperative floor, she was able to see parents’ faces after their child’s surgery and hand mirrors to awestruck adult patients.
"It's amazing when they see themselves," she said. "They're so grateful for everything. Sometimes in American hospitals there's an expectation that you don't see in developing countries."
Outside of her overseas volunteer work, Donaghy teaches two online courses a semester and life support techniques at Saint Clare’s Health and RWJBarnabas Health. The Monmouth County resident also works as a substitute nurse for Bayada Health and as a volunteer dishwasher at JBJ Soul Kitchen, a nonprofit community restaurant run by the Jon Bon Jovi Soul Foundation.
"I'm high-energy," she said. "I like to be busy. It keeps me young."