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Special Features | National

'The builders that connect the world': 35 years on, Operation Smile continues to live up to its name

An Operation Smile patient on the operating table.
The online news portal of TV5

MANILA, Philippines -- In 1981, an American family went to the Philippines on a medical mission. The father, Bill Magee, was a plastic surgeon; the mother, Kathy Magee, a pediatric nurse. Their eldest daughter, Brigitte, was a teenager who already knew her way around an operating room.

They were met with a queue of 250 children in Naga City. The room was small and crowded, and the kids were jostling each other to reach their visitors. There were also adults with huge tumors on their faces. The family had never seen anything like it before.

Shaken, Kathy wondered, “Can we really do this?” And the Magees quickly got to work.

Brigitte had set up an area where the children could play while they were screened. Then she would carry them into the operating room, or stay in the operating room to hand her father instruments as he performed the surgery on the kids. Kathy would then work with the staff of the Camarines Sur hospital on post-operative care, so the kids could learn to talk with their new lips and palates.

They did about 40 surgeries in four days, and the family decided that they would come back and finish what they started.

Maybe it had to do with one of the children's mothers going up to Bill and handing him a bunch of bananas for trying to help her child. This was despite the kid not being able to undergo surgery as there were just too many patients. This act of gratitude touched him.

“We were very taken by the warmth of the Filipinos,” Kathy said in a recent interview with InterAksyon.

Operation Smile co-founder Kathy Magee, in a February 2017 interview with InterAksyon. 

The couple was back in the Philippines to celebrate the 35th founding anniversary of Operation Smile, the organization they had put together to turn children's cleft conditions into grins.

The nongovernmental organization is now in 61 countries since its formal creation in 1982, its volunteers have been able to operate on over 300,000 children and treat three million others.

To celebrate what they have achieved, they will be doing 2,300 operations in the Philippines and 5,000 more in other countries this year.

At the same time, Operation Smile launched the movement “Until We Heal,” where they urged people to commit to help each child get access to safe surgery. Vice President Leni Robredo was among those who made the pledge. Her husband, the late Interior Secretary Jesse Robredo, used to be the organization's partner in Naga City. She shared his advocacy.

Operation Smile has been working with a number of Philippine hospitals to provide training and equipment on the goal of providing better surgery.

“Until we heal every child, we will not stop,” Kathy said.

The campaign has another component: reaching children from far-flung areas whose parents are often too poor to travel.

“We know one parent with a child who walked 29 hours in Palawan just to get to us,” Kathy recalled.

Operation Smile has partnered with the two million-strong Boy Scouts of the Philippines, who can use an app created by Smart Communications for the organization. The app contains photos and information of children with cleft conditions and allows the Boy Scouts to locate them.

If they needed transportation or food, Operation Smile can take care of these just so they get the surgery they need.

With 5,000 children with cleft conditions born every day, millions still have not received medical attention, Kathy said.

A mother and child are given a checkup by an Operation Smile volunteer.

With the Philippines’ more than 7,000 islands, it is difficult to reach all of them, so Operation Smile welcomes all the help they can get.

The youth is another major sector that brought life to Operation Smile. When Brigitte went home to the United States after their first visit to the Philippines, she immediately rallied her school to pitch in. They raised money and gathered books, and some of her friends even went back to the Philippines with her.

The teenagers were in charge of play therapy, showing kids and their families what would happen to them so they wouldn't be afraid. The teenagers enjoyed organizing games for the little ones, and the patients went into the operating room feeling less anxious.

“Students are valuable. They like it, and they're very intense, impassioned with these kids,” Kathy said.

The student volunteers have swelled in number so much that every year Operation Smile holds conferences for them. This year’s will be in Rome, with 600 to 700 participants from 45 countries expected.

“We've requested an audience with the Pope. He's been a great leader for everyone,” Kathy added.

Latin America, from where Pope Francis hails, had such a large number of student volunteers Operation Smile held a separate conference for them early this year.

The youth are now in charge of teaching the patients how to take care of their teeth, the kind of food they have to eat, the importance of drinking water, and even how to do CPR.

Of course, a number of big companies had pitched in, too.

Johnson & Johnson was among the first to get involved, providing the NGO all the sutures it needed. It has committed $25 million over the next five years. Coca-Cola was also considering holding a concert to provide awareness about the organization. Another company even came in just to keep the medical instruments sharp.

In the Philippines, local carriers Philippine Airlines and Cebu Pacific are among the companies that have hopped aboard.

Countries' health departments also have a role to play, and so do the hospitals, which sllow Operation Smile to take over for a week.

And because Operation Smile's headquarters are in Virginia Beach, where the Magees' home is, as well, the Filipinos who work in the Navy also volunteer.

“Everybody's just very willing, I have to say. You know, if you have the opportunity to change the life of a child, why not? You're actually gonna take that life, have that child speak, eat. They will die without getting that palate closed,” Kathy said.

These children are now able to return to school, make friends, and in the long run, become productive citizens. All because of a surgery that takes anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour.

Inside Operation Smile's operating room.

 The Magees were surprised at the high incidence of the cleft condition in the Philippines as compared to the US, and they are now collaborating with the University of Southern California, which is conducting research on its causes.

Kathy observed that it was due primarily to pregnant mothers' poor nutrition. Most of them had no prenatal care. There were environmental toxins, as well. Many of the mothers breathed in the pollutants from the cooking fires in their homes.

The Operation Smile team also saw that the children had no protein, vitamins, or minerals in their diets. It was mostly carbohydrates in rice. In one case, the child was so severely malnourished that his/her body ate itself, leaving a cleft in the middle of the face. Thankfully, the doctors were able to reconstruct the child's lip and nose.

“It's tough,” Kathy said of working in Philippine terrain. “There's water, it's separating us everywhere. But people just want to have a life ... they just want their children to be healthy.”

Luckily, Operation Smile's volunteers enjoy travelling to the Philippines -- whether they're from the Middle East or Latin America.

“And as you know, you have the best singing going on in the world, so everybody has karaoke, and they love being here,” Kathy said.

Asked about the role Operation Smile played given the increasingly isolationist American presidency, she had this reply: “I feel like we're the builders, the connection to the world. We're heavily in Mexico, and so we feel like we're building with these countries. It's amazing what people do together, and what our governments do that maybe pull us all apart. And so we feel like we're the builders that connect the world and connect people.”

“We're connecting the world for good things, for world peace,” Kathy added. “I feel like Operation Smile is a big part of making this world a better place.”