Project Vietnam: Five Days to Create Smiles

The families of 41 children with cleft lips and palates lined up outside the hospital in the northern mountains of Vietnam and waited.

If I had been one of the children arriving at the hospital on that first day, I would have run away as fast as I could. The kids were braver.

It was November 2004. On a medical mission that took me far outside of my life as a North Shore mom, I was traveling as the photographer with Project Vietnam. Vietnam is close to my heart because my son, who we adopted at ten weeks old, was born in the northern mountains of Vietnam. This month, I will be making the same journey again. I am going to help the other children of Vietnam, as thanks for one of my greatest gifts: my son, child of my heart, the sunshine of my life.

During my first trip, American plastic surgeons for Project Vietnam had five days to operate. Each family hoped the surgeons could help their child. Some of the children’s lives depended on having the free surgery. I feared that not all the children there would be able to have the corrective surgery in those five days.

One at a time the kids sat in a dental chair, surrounded by strange-looking American doctors who examined their mouths and babbled amongst themselves.

And then there was the giant albino-like woman taking photos – me. After the surgeons decided that a child was eligible for surgery, the new patient came to me. My job: to photograph the cleft lip or cleft palate, to expose the very personal wounds. I wondered how to do this in a sensitive and respectful way.

So I smiled to give them, and me, courage. I posed the kids at different angles to document the injuries and the repairs the surgeons would be making.

The children were brave. Some of the babies cried. A teenage boy glared at me, no translation necessary. Some kids registered fear in their eyes but stood resolutely.

The surgeons were able to operate on all 41 kids in those five days. I photographed them in the operating room and in the days after. We left before I could witness the total changes in these kids’ lives, but I could see that the surgeons had expertly crafted new smiles – and new reasons to smile – for these children.

The children I met in Vietnam, whose wounds had interfered with their smiles, had given me a lesson on smiling. I left happy knowing that some would be able to eat and breathe normally for the first time with new mouths and noses.

Editor’s note: You can follow Rebecca this month as she makes another trip to Vietnam at her blog, and view her photos at