Changing healthcare through treating children with clefts


FORTY YEARS after its beginnings in the Philippines, Operation Smile aims to treat 1,200 children with clefts by 2022.

In 1982, plastic surgeon Dr. Bill Magee and his wife Kathy, a nurse and clinical social worker, traveled to the Philippines on a medical mission to repair children’s cleft lip and palate. However, an overwhelming response awaited them when they arrived in Naga City. Hundreds of families came, hoping their children would be operated on, far more than the team could handle at the time.

As the mission prepared to leave, the Magees promised to return to help more children. They gathered materials, raised funds and put together a team of volunteer medical professionals for their own medical mission in the Philippines. That’s when Operation Smile was born.

Our country holds a special place in the history and future of Operation Smile. It was here that eyes were opened not only to the realities of cleft conditions in the country, but also to the larger issues surrounding health care in the Philippines. In a study by the World Health Organization (WHO) conducted on the state of the country’s health system, said that although significant improvements have been made, with infrastructure and human resources concentrated around the region Metro Manila and other key cities, some barriers to access remain – particularly for communities residing in remote areas.

The regional and socio-economic disparities that hinder access to quality health care impact the quality of life of many of our compatriots, the effects of which manifest themselves in different ways. In one in 1,000 live births, a patient with a cleft is born. Without access to surgery, cleft patients may have difficulty eating, breathing, and speaking. On top of all this, they may have to bear the brunt of low self-esteem brought on by fears of embarrassment or social stigma due to their condition. If surgery were available to every child born with a cleft, how many lives could be changed for the better?

Together, we strive to create a world where no parent has to tell their child that there is no hope for them to live a happier and healthier life, especially when they can do it. This belief has guided our work at Operation Smile Philippines, mobilizing to provide reconstructive surgery and comprehensive care to children and young adults without access to health, speech and developmental services.

Now building on 40 years of success, Operation Smile is entering a new era as a global network promoting access to high quality healthcare. The problems we seek to solve go beyond dealing with split conditions. In doing so, we are taking steps to effect large-scale change in the way surgeries are performed and made accessible across the country.

This is made possible by creating programs designed to address long-standing health issues through collaboration. Through partnerships with government units, hospitals and other non-governmental organizations, local health systems are strengthened – empowering local health professionals to train and educate themselves to provide health care. quality to the communities they serve.

Stakeholder activation is one of the key visions of Operation Smile Philippines. Along with the development of online Zoom therapy sessions and innovative approaches to care in response to the pandemic, efforts continue to eliminate the backlog of children with clefts in the country. With a goal of successfully treating around 1,200 patients in 2022, Operation Smile Philippines is working towards the goal of zero patients with cleft palate in the country. The operation will be a mix of weekly surgical programs at our centers in Manila, Pampanga, Davao, and more.

They say it takes a whole village to raise a child, and to this day, that saying rings true. Entire communities help create an environment where children can grow up safe and healthy. From our surgeons, partners and volunteers, Operation Smile is helping transform children’s lives for the better – giving more Filipinos across the country another reason to smile.

Donald Lim is the Chairman of the Board of Operation Smile Philippines, a non-profit voluntary service organization that provides free reconstructive facial surgery to children with cleft lip. Mr. Lim is also Chief Operating Officer of DITO CME and concurrently Chief Innovation Officer of its parent company, Udenna Corporation.

Christine E. Phillips