Aboushi helped create 185 smiles

CORTLAND, N.Y. -- There are 185 new smiles in Sudan these days, and Oday Aboushi helped create them all.

Aboushi, an offensive lineman for the New York Jets, was part of a five-day surgical mission by the Islamic Medical Association of North America in early March to repair cleft lips in the African country. IMANA Medical Relief's volunteer SaveSmile team of doctors and nurses operated on infants as young as a few months old to young adults in their early- to mid-20s in Sudan's capital city of Khartoum.

Aboushi, who joined the group along with his older sister Tahanie and youngest brother Haytham, scrubbed in and assisted with giving patients IVs and watched as their mouths were transformed in the 35-minute procedures. Muscles are adjusted and tissues connected so that a lip can form and heal properly.

"It was such a great experience to help people, but also to see such an instant result," said Aboushi, a sociology major in college. "You're bringing them into the operating room and then a few minutes later, you're bringing them out and they look like a totally different person.

"Their parents are in tears, they're so grateful."

The group arrived at the hospital every morning at 7 a.m. and worked until 7 p.m. -- five days straight and 185 patients. Aboushi's siblings made the trip the two previous years and raved about the experience. After he finished his rookie season last December, Aboushi decided to join them on the 18-hour trek from Staten Island to Africa.

"Going over there made me realize just how blessed I am to have a normal body -- well, I have a bigger body -- and have a normal face," the 6-foot-5, 308-pound Aboushi said. "You appreciate being able to drink normally and go out and make friends and feel comfortable. That's something you always take for granted because it's not really measured."

Aboushi was particularly touched by the story of one patient who had the procedure two years ago, but before that had withdrawn from school and rarely left his house because he felt out of place. After the surgery, Aboushi said, he's at the top of his class in grades and going on interviews.

"It's crazy, and so awesome," he said. "I look forward to hearing more about certain kids we worked on and see where they are in life, just to have that chance to be normal and be able to do daily functions that everybody does."

Aboushi plans to make similar trips in the future, but now his focus is solely on football -- and competing for a starting spot on the Jets' offensive line. He was drafted last year out of the University of Virginia as a tackle, and spent all season on the active roster but never got into a game.

"I came back taking nothing for granted," Aboushi said. "I'm always being appreciative of what I have now. The whole experience really just humbled me greatly."