CORTLAND, N.Y. (CBSNewYork/AP) — Oday Aboushi gently placed the young boy on the hospital room bed, and quickly stepped aside.
The child’s mother broke down at the sight of her suddenly unrecognizable son. His once-misshapen mouth appeared nearly normal. She turned to Aboushi, an offensive lineman for the New York Jets, and hugged him.
Aboushi wasn’t ready for it. And then, he cried, too.
“I was like, ‘Man. Just, wow,'” Aboushi recalled after a recent training camp practice. “That’s when it hit me what we were doing there.”
There are 185 new smiles in Sudan these days, and Aboushi helped create them all.
He 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.
And, it changed his life.
“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Aboushi was particularly touched by the story of one patient who had the procedure two years ago, but before that had withdrawn from school and rarely left his house because he felt out of place.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 in the fifth round 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.
Late in the season, the Jets tried practicing Aboushi at guard to see if that might be an even better fit. Now, he’s competing with Brian Winters to be New York’s starting left guard.
“To be honest, sometimes a guy gets out there and it’s like, ‘Hey, that looks right. It looks comfortable,'” Jets offensive line coach Mike Devlin said. “He has great athleticism. I see a different guy, to be honest with you, and so far, that has been carrying over.”
Aboushi has stood out through the first four practices of training camp, including shutting down Sheldon Richardson, last season’s Defensive Rookie of the Year, on two straight plays in Sunday’s session.
“Oday Aboushi keeps jumping out at me a bit,” coach Rex Ryan said. “When everybody left (after last season), I wasn’t sure that I could have said that Oday was going to be as impressive as he was. He decided in the offseason that he’s going to become more physical, he’s going to become more passionate and I see it on the practice field.”
Aboushi and Winters, the starter last year, have rotated between left guard and right guard while starter Willie Colon works his way back from offseason knee surgery. While most eyes are on the quarterbacks, the competition for the left guard spot is truly one to watch.
“Last year, there were a lot of first-time things and a lot of new things, so I was trying to grasp all that at the same time,” Aboushi said. “This year, I was able to slow a lot of things down.”
And that’s something he can certainly smile about. Along with his new friends in Sudan.
“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.”
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