The gift of a smile

So many take a smile for granted. After all, it’s the most natural and spontaneous expression of happiness, never mind how fleeting it may be. But what if you are unable to smile? Or you don’t smile like other people do? Or your smile causes some embarrassment or discrimination?

This is the secret pain of those who suffer from harelips and cleft palates: Despite this being the 21st century, they often are the subject of teasing and insults—which can traumatize children all their lives and hinder their progression as adults.

American craniofacial surgeon Dr. William P. Magee Jr. is very familiar with the condition: “Cleft palate is the opening in the roof of the mouth that occurs when the two sides of a palate don’t join together, while cleft lip, also called ‘harelip,’ is the opening in the upper lip that can extend to the base of the nostrils,” he said. A patient can even have both conditions, which is dangerous because it is easier for bacteria to enter the mouth and spread to the rest of the body resulting in everything from dental problems to malnutrition, making it imperative that young children suffering from these conditions get an operation to correct them.

That’s what Magee and his wife Kathleen have been doing for 30 years now. And they have multiplied themselves for the cause through an international charity organization that has a perfect name: Operation Smile.

The journey of Operation Smile began in 1982, when the Magees were on a medical mission in Naga. There they discovered that many children were suffering from harelips and cleft palates but could not get medical help because the parents could not afford it. With their daughter helping run a fund-raising campaign in the United States, Operation Smile has since mobilized more than 5,000 volunteers in 80 countries and performed over 200,000 surgeries. In the Philippines alone, Operation Smile has performed surgery on 24,000 people, changing lives immensely.

Many more need help. Some 4,000 children with some kind of lip deformity are born every year in the Philippines, according to Roberto Manzano, Operation Smile Philippines president. “There are more children with cleft problems in poorer areas and local villages, which don’t even have proper hospitals,” he said, adding that the charity has operated on people of every age—from a 6-month-old baby to a 60-year-old grandmother.

Manzano emphasized the need for surgery. “Unknown to many, the deformity contributes to the high infant mortality rate in developing countries,” he said. Operation Smile’s data state that 10 percent of children born with cleft problems (some 400 patients a year) die before reaching their first birthday and 12 percent (480 kids) die before they reach the age of 5.

That’s why Operation Smile is now gearing up to perform more surgeries and help more patients than ever before. The charity aims to operate on 4,500 children in nine different sites in the Philippines come December, with the help of  1,000 volunteers from around the world, deployed in 10 missions.

Operation Smile continues to evolve. The Philippines does not have any kind of registry of children with cleft problems, but this will change now that Ateneo Java Wireless Competency Center and Smart Communications have created OpSmile Mobile. This application for Operation Smile would make it possible for social workers to use their cell phones to record cleft births and collate them into a national registry. Operation Smile has also established two permanent cleft care facilities in Sta. Ana Hospital in Manila and Brokenshire Hospital in Davao City. “Operation Smile is ready to partner with any reputable organization, be they public or private, local or international, to make cleft care readily available to those who can least afford it,” Manzano said.

Operation Smile’s success has become its own testament and covenant. As Magee said: “Big or small contributions are appreciated. We have 5,500 volunteers worldwide and people usually know of the organization from friends. People want to genuinely do good things, and we help them take the first step. Children are children are children—Asian, Latino, Christian, Jew, Muslim—and they need help.”

As Operation Smile marks its 30th year of wonderful work, it is clear that many Filipino families owe the Magees big time for having started this life-changing charity. The Magees are truly a couple for others. Their devotion to their cause—helping children break free from the “harelip trap” and literally smile at the world—is admirable. There is no question, they are changing the world, one smile at a time.

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