Life-changing | Inquirer Opinion


/ 02:00 AM March 05, 2017

It’s something to smile about in this season of deaths in the night: Operation Smile, which has radically changed the lives of some 30,000 Filipinos with cleft lip, cleft palate and other facial deformities, is marking its 35th year. The anniversary is highlighted by the launch of “Until We Heal,” a global campaign to broaden the reach of safe surgery to save and transform more lives.

The story of Operation Smile has been told often, but still deserves retelling. It was back in 1982 when Dr. William “Bill” Magee Jr. and his wife, nurse Kathleen “Kathy” Magee, came to the Philippines as part of a volunteer medical mission.

In Naga City, they were struck by the number of children—around 300—suffering from cleft conditions. “Every one of those kids had a gaping hole in the mouth” and, thus, could not eat or speak properly, Bill Magee recalled. The couple wound up conducting surgery on 40 of the kids, and realizing how transformative and life-changing the short operation was for the patients. “In just 45 minutes, it was hopelessness to opportunity. Forty-five minutes changed their lives,” he said.

The Magees also realized they wanted to return the next year to carry out more cleft operations but that they could not do so. An idea came after an encounter with the mother of a child they hadn’t been able to operate on left them in tears. Since then, the Magees have tirelessly gathered resources and personnel from their home base in Virginia in the United States. Today, Operation Smile has permanent offices in over 60 countries, carrying out more than 300,000 surgeries and diagnosing over two million children all over the world.


Operation Smile has kept a special place in its heart for the Philippines. Yearly, volunteer medical personnel from over 80 countries fan out to various cities to carry out their mercy mission. Beyond the countless hours of volunteer work, Operation Smile has also sent here millions of dollars worth of medical supplies and equipment. “I am 100-percent sure if we had gone to a country other than the Philippines that first year, there would be no Operation Smile,” Bill Magee said.

While the scale of the nonprofit’s work is impressive, its true legacy can be seen in how its patients’ lives have been changed. May Klaire Parparan of Isabela, Negros Occidental, had dreamt of becoming a nurse but when she was seven, a teenager told her this would never happen because she was different. “That was when I realized that I was not like the others. My world fell apart. I lost my dream. There did not seem to be a future for me,” she said. But in 1994 Operation Smile came to nearby Bacolod City, and then 12-year-old May Klaire’s life was turned around. She is now a registered nurse and working in her hometown.

While many children have found a bright future through Operation Smile, adults have been helped as well. Originally from Negros Occidental, marine engineer Jose Villegas was 26 when he developed a tumor on his chin that would eventually grow to two pounds. Companies wouldn’t hire him because of his deformity, and he became depressed. He sought help from Operation Smile and was twice turned down. But the third time was the charm, and in 1987 he was flown to the United States to undergo eight operations. After his recovery, he joined Operation Smile and spoke to organizations about its mission. He is now a businessman in Norfolk, Virginia, and a regular donor of the nonprofit.

“Until We Heal” seeks to expand Operation Smile’s reach even further. For its Philippine campaign, it has named Vice President Leni Robredo as its ambassador. The Magees remain ever focused on their mission: “Operation Smile is not about any one of us. It is about the collaborative energy and talent of every single one of us coming together to do something spectacular,” Bill Magee said at the launch in Manila. “Until we heal every child, our job is not done. Surgery doesn’t exist for at least four billion people in the world… More kids die from lack of access to surgery every year than from malaria, AIDS or any other disease combined. We have to find a way to train people, to bring surgery that’s safe to our world.”

This mission is a gift to the Philippines and the world. Long may it, and its founders, live.

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TAGS: Inquirer editorial, Operation Smile

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