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From Three Chopt to the Third World

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Some folks' idea of an on-the-fly vacation is a half-tank of gas, a bag of stale corn nuts and an out-of-date coffee-stained AAA map.

Not Johanna Pitts.

When she throws her fate to the winds, she does it with a purpose.

The Henrico mother of one and nurse to thousands throws her name into the hat at Norfolk-based Operation Smile, which this year is celebrating its 25th year of staging medical miracles in Third World countries.

"I just love going — the people are wonderful and what we do is unbelievable," says Pitts, 38, who works as an operating-room nurse at Tuckahoe Surgery Center on Three Chopt Road.

She's participated in Operation Smile since 1999, and hopes to make her fifth trip this year as part of the organization's gala anniversary, World Journey of Smiles. It'll be her second since the birth of her son, Matthew, now 4.

But her family's hardship is hardly hard compared with the trials of families she's helped in Ecuador, Peru and Kenya. Husband Todd always steps up to the plate.

"I'll be gone three weeks and nobody will ever complain — everybody chips in," she says.

A typical Operation Smile trip is broken into parts. three days spent screening potential patients, five days for surgery. A skeleton crew of doctors remains behind for postoperative monitoring.

"A lot of these kids you get, it just breaks your heart because you know you can't do anything," says Pitts, attributing this simply to the bare fact that five days of surgery simply aren't enough to fix everybody.

Patients, many of whom traveled hundreds of miles for treatment, are given numbers. Some don't understand the system, and most don't speak English.

In Peru, Pitts says, her group evaluated 263 patients and performed 125 surgeries. Most operations were for cleft plates or lips, the reason for the group's name.

But help is also rendered to children suffering debilitating scars from horrible burns attributed to cooking fires. In many poor countries, a lack of resources forces families to resort to using unstable liquid fuels for cooking. Accidents happen, and when they do, children are often the victims.

"It's really horrifying," says Pitts, who credits her participation with opening her eyes to better ways to practice her craft here at home. "It's a gift to be able to do this."

Since its inception, Operation Smile has treated more than 100,000 children and young adults around the world and in the United States. S

Visit the Operation Smile website

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