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A nurse volunteer’s experience with Interplast

Perioperative registered nurse Joanne Oxbrow shares her life-altering experience with non-for-profit Interplast.

A nurse volunteer’s experience with Interplast

As a medical volunteer with Interplast Australia & New Zealand, I feel humbled, privileged and fortunate. To enter into the lives and culture of those living in a developing society and then be given the enormous responsibility to repair local bodies and rebuild lives is, in itself, inspiring.

Interplast is, in my opinion, one of Australia and New Zealand’s best kept secrets. For 30 years, it’s been sending volunteer plastic and reconstructive surgeons, anaesthetists, nurses and allied health professional to our neighbouring countries to provide free treatment while also strengthening local health systems through training. And their influence and achievements are incredible.

An Interplast activity is about teaching and being taught. It is about understanding local culture, empowering local medical and nursing staff, and hearing both devastating and then inspirational stories. There is hard work, but amazing teamwork, and there is a fantastic sense of gratification which comes with the opportunity to be part of such life-changing work.

I remember how shocked I was to learn that a Burmese child born with a cleft lip will not go to school, having lost the basic human right to gain an education. These children are confined to a life of poverty, child labour and a shortened life expectancy. I then met another young Burmese man who saw his extra digit as a blessing and sign of ongoing good fortune. Something we would remove and discard, he saw as his “Lucky Finger”. We do not make value judgements. We respect the communities we’re invited into. And we leave a legacy by building capacity so the local community can continue the work once we have gone. That’s why I got involved.

The clinic is always fun but confronting. This is where we see the enormity of the need for these activities to exist. The waiting room is always filled and overflowing with patients hoping to be chosen for a free operation. It is not uncommon for 120 to 200 patients to be seen in a clinic for a two week operating program in which only 60 to 80 procedures will be performed due to the time constraints and funding limitations.

Communication and language translation into the often many local dilects can be challenging at the clinic. However, there seems to be an international expression of helplessness, sadness and desperation in the eyes of every mother, father and grandparent who comes with a disabled child – a child with a cleft lip, cleft palate, debilitating contracture from a horrific burn suffered some time ago. Their hope, hope that we will choose their child to have an operation which will change their life and often the lives of the entire family and village, in a positive way, forever, is palpable. The enormity of this responsibility weighs heavily on the entire team.

We cannot change the world. We cannot make a huge impact in a short amount of time. It will take many, many future programs, to many developing countries with many volunteers and many donations and there will still be a huge amount of work to be done. But, we are making a difference.

On our recent 30th year anniversary program activity to Suva in Fiji, I was inspired by the obvious positive influence Interplast programs and volunteers have made to the provision of medical care by local medical and nursing staff over this time.  The focus of the local hospital management with ongoing education and professional development was admirable. I could see a definite improvement even over the past three years when I was last in Fiji on an Interplast activity. Time was allocated to education sessions, with all staff included. All medical and nursing staff were eager to learn from us, asking questions, taking every opportunity to be hands on and then implementing what they had learnt into their daily work. Again, I feel so humbled, privileged and fortunate to be a part of this.

Interplast operates in 17 countries across the Asia Pacific region. 21,000 people have received operations and thousands have been trained. Every Interplast surgical program I am fortunate to be a part of leaves me with a sense of pride and achievement. It also leaves me feeling saddened by the enormity of what still needs to be done and an urgency about when I can next be involved. With the continued support of our sponsors and volunteers, Interplast Australia & New Zealand can continue to build capacity, repair bodies and rebuild lives. I will forever feel so humbled for being allowed the opportunity to enter the lives of these amazing, culturally rich people and being given the extraordinary privilege of helping them learn how to provide sustainable and safe care to their fellow countrymen. Thank you to everyone who helps support Interplast to continue this work.

For more information on Interplast, visit

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