Graduating MBA student is all smiles

Published 26 September 2007

A dedicated nursing professional who spends all her holidays travelling to under-developed countries to assist in life-changing surgeries on children is one of the many proud students who will graduate from Southern Cross University on Saturday (September 29).

But there will be little time to celebrate for Masters of Business Administration (MBA) student Donna Franklin, who will soon leave on another Operation Smile mission to Ethiopia.

The Nurse Unit Manager of the Paediatric Intensive Care Unit at the Mater Children’s Hospital in Brisbane has completed 13 Operation Smile missions to Morocco, China, Russia, the Philippines, Jordan, Vietnam, Bolivia and Kenya over the past eight years.

During the gruelling 12-14-day stays she either works in recovery or as a clinical co-ordinator, running the busy surgical program for the team of plastic surgeons, who might correct facial deformities (mostly cleft palates and cleft lips) on as many as 100-280 children.

That Donna was able to combine this voluntary work with effectively two years of compressed MBA study at the university’s Tweed Gold Coast campus while also juggling full-time work (managing some 60 nurses) is a testament to her dedication and commitment, not to mention her boundless energy.

“Operation Smile assembles teams of volunteer medical professionals to provide free surgery to children in under-developed countries with the mantra of creating smiles, changing lives and healing humanity,” said Donna, a registered nurse with 20 years’ experience.

“In many communities children with facial deformities are shunned by society. Surgery can change their appearance, speech and ultimately the way they interact and are accepted into their community. It is often life-changing for them.

“Our surgical teams are completely self-sufficient. We fly in with all the equipment we need and might set up 6-8 operating theatres in the local hospital. I’ve made friends the world over and always return from my missions reinvigorated and full of stories.”

One such story is the chilling episode that occurred during her second mission to Jordan, in 2006, when three bus-loads of Baghdad children scheduled for surgery were ambushed by terrorists during their journey from Iraq.

“They were all taken off the buses by 10 people wearing black head wear and told to show their passports; if they were Shi’ites then they were going to be killed,” Donna said.

“Ninety-five per cent of them were Shi’ites but the terrorists got word that an American convoy was on its way so they ran away. The children travelled safely on to Amman and we performed all their surgeries. The shock that these children and their parents could have all been killed was quite overwhelming for the team. In my Operation Smile work I am confronted by the very best and the very worst of humanity.”

Donna also fondly recalls 44-year-old Joseph, of Kenya, who was so desperate to be among the select few adults chosen for surgery that he wore a shiny purple suit (which he claimed brought him luck) to attract attention and the beautiful Russian 16-year-old who ‘cried and cried and cried’ upon seeing her new perfect lip shape in a mirror after surgery. “I know just two words in Russian and they are really the only ones I need – beautiful smile,” Donna said.

She said the Operation Smile missions combined her love of health, children and travel.

“Wherever you are, you immerse yourself in the culture and learn about what life is truly like for these people in their communities,” Donna said.

“It’s my way of seeing the world, in its reality, rather than as a tourist. You develop a much greater appreciation of life; that’s the best part for me. It always puts my own life in perspective and makes me realize that I don’t need all that I have. It is a humbling experience and makes me very grateful for the life I have in Australia and the family and friends that I share my life with.”

As well as the great sense of accomplishment Donna expects to feel on when she graduates at the Lismore campus in the company of her family she is rewarding herself with a side-trip to Uganda, to see the mountain gorillas, during her November visit to Ethiopia.

“My study demanded true and utter discipline but I really wanted to do a Masters, something more substantial that would have applications in the professional and possibly philanthropic world,” she said.

“I’m already applying the skills that I have learnt through the organisational behaviour and people management units. I’m managing nurses, doctors, families and children every day, but the MBA is so broad that I can use it in so many other areas. Whether it’s during my missions or my personal life, those leadership skills are useful wherever I go.”

Photo: Donna Franklin with a patient in Jordan.

Media contact: Brigid Veale Southern Cross University communications manager, 02 66593006 or 0439 680 748.