A Ten-Year Anniversary!

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Marina with Thiery.

Our wonderful Program Operations and Development Manager, Marina, recently celebrated an incredible milestone – she’s been with Children First Foundation for over 10 years! Here is a short Q&A with Marina, where you’ll get all the insights, and often untold stories into getting our kids to Australia for surgery.

Congratulations on 10 years Marina, can you please tell us a little bit about your role…

As the program and Operations and Development Manager, for me, the journey of a child starts when I receive that first enquiry. I may get an email or a phone call from a desperate family member, a friend of the family, an organisation such as Interplast, a doctor or even a message via our Facebook page asking for our help. Once the initial criteria are met, the wheels are put in motion to get the child to Australia for surgery.

We already have numerous highly skilled surgeons with an abundance of kindness and generosity who gladly donate their time and skills to treating children.  We also have private hospitals such as St Vincent’s Private, Epworth, St John of God Berwick, St John of God Geelong and North Park who partner with us to provide theatres and hospital beds.  In some cases, we are able to match the child with one of these surgeons and hospitals.   

Other times, we need to find another surgeon and another hospital who would be willing to come on board.  We do not take the generosity of surgeons and hospitals lightly and are always mindful to balance the requests for help so that we do not wear out our welcome.  Where we are unable to source this pro bono or where a child needs to be treated at a public hospital such as Royal Children’s Hospital or Monash, my colleagues will fundraise specifically to pay for the surgery.  

What happens next?

Once everything is set up in Australia, we need to work on bringing the child out.  This is part is always challenging, and sometimes feels almost impossible! 

The child and the accompanying parent or carer need to have medical visas. This means that they need a passport, which in turn means that they need a birth certificate, and in some cases, they need a national ID card as well.  For a family living in a remote village, who have never travelled before and don’t have access to transport, internet or money, this as you can imagine, is a pretty difficult task!

Part of my role is to set up people in the different countries that we work in to provide families with the support to get the paper ready.  Our in-country support person needs to work with the family to ensure that the documentation process is dealt with as efficiently as possible.

Often the family has to travel to the city and stay there while all the paperwork is prepared and submitted.  It’s not easy, often the family will have to travel by foot.

Unfortunately, the process is often fraught with delays. While we try and do everything that is required by Immigration, some things are just not possible, and we need to negotiate with Immigration.   

Delays can add up to months which can then cause issues with surgery bookings and in some cases put a child’s life at risk.  We will do whatever it takes to ensure this does not happen, reaching out to whoever we have to.

Receiving the medical visa grant is always a cause for a small celebration in our office, and from this stage of the journey, we start to get very excited about the pending arrival of another child about to transform their lives.  Travel is organised, carers are briefed on what to expect in Australia, surgeons and hospitals are advised, first appointments are made, and our team is ready to welcome the child!

Apart from when you secure the medical visa, what is the best part of your job?

When I find a surgeon and a hospital that will accept the child and I can go back to the referrer to say, “the child’s life is going to be changed”, that is my best day.  

My second-best day is when the child has had their surgery, and they realise they no longer have to live with their condition in the way that they had to before. 

One memory that always stays in my mind is when Koko when he came out for his first surgery.  One of his legs was severely deformed as a result of a bone break which had not been appropriately treated.  Thankfully, we got him to Australia to have surgery. We were sitting in the waiting room at his final appointment post-surgery, and Koko, who at the time did not say a lot, was staring at his legs.  When I asked him if he was okay, he looked at me and said, “my legs, they are the same”.

Tell us, what is the most challenging part of your role?

Definitely when I am approached by someone who has a child that we are unable to help, such as a child with cancer, or a child who needs an organ transplant.  In these situations, I will reach out to an organisation or person who may be able to help and connect them to each other.

What does it feel like to have helped so many children and families during your time at Children First Foundation?

Every child that arrives at Children First Foundation has their own unique story. It is difficult to even imagine how some have survived through the physical pain caused by their condition. The challenges in trying to function, being ostracised and condemned and wondering if they will ever be helped. 

We don’t always know their story until after they arrive, and I am sure that there have been some children who have not shared everything about their struggles.  To be in a position where I can work with others to create hope and then turn that into reality is incredibly fulfilling. 

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