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

In 1982, Dr. Bill Magee, a plastic surgeon, and his wife Kathy, a nurse and clinical social worker, traveled to the Philippines for a medical mission to repair children’s cleft lips and cleft palates. However, an overwhelming response awaited them upon their arrival in Naga City. Hundreds of families came, hoping their children would receive surgery, way more than the team could treat at the time.

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

Our country holds a special place in the history and future of Operation Smile. It was here where eyes were opened not only to the realities of cleft conditions in the country, but also to larger issues surrounding Philippine healthcare. In a World Health Organization (WHO) study conducted on the state of the country’s health system, said that while significant improvements have been made, with infrastructure and human resources concentrated around Metro Manila and other key cities, certain roadblocks to access remain — especially for communities residing in far-flung areas.

The regional and socioeconomic disparities that impede access to quality healthcare impact the quality of life enjoyed by many of our countrymen, the effects of which manifest in different ways. In one out of every 1,000 live births, a patient with a cleft condition is born. Without access to surgery, cleft patients may struggle to eat, breathe, and speak. On top of all that, they may have to shoulder the weight of low self-esteem brought about by fears of embarrassment or social stigma due to their condition. If surgery was made available to every child born with cleft conditions, how many lives could be changed for the better?

Together, we strive for a world where no parent has to tell their child that there is no hope for them to live happier, healthier lives — especially when it’s possible for them to do so. This belief has guided our work at Operation Smile Philippines, rallying to provide reconstructive surgery and comprehensive care for children and young adults lacking 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 driving access to high-quality healthcare. The problems we seek to solve go beyond treating cleft conditions. By doing so, we take steps towards achieving large-scale change in the way surgeries are delivered and made accessible across the country.

This is made possible by creating programs designed to address longstanding healthcare issues through collaboration. Through partnerships with government units, hospitals, and other nongovernment organizations, local health systems are strengthened — empowering local medical professionals with training and education to provide quality care for the communities they serve.

The activation of stakeholders is one of key vision of Operation Smile Philippines. Alongside the development of online Zoom therapy sessions and innovative approaches to care in response to the pandemic, efforts continue to erase the backlog of children with cleft conditions in the country. With a goal to successfully treat around 1,200 patients in 2022, Operation Smile Philippines works towards achieving zero cleft palate patients in the country. The operation will be a mix of Weekly Surgical Programs in our Centers in Manila, Pampanga, Davao, and more.

They say that it takes a village to raise a child, and to this day, that saying rings true. Entire communities have a hand in creating an environment where children can grow up safe and healthy. From our surgeons, partners, and volunteers, Operation Smile helps transform the lives of children for the better — giving more Filipinos across the country another reason to smile.

 

Donald Lim is the president of the Board of Trustees of Operation Smile Philippines, a nonprofit, volunteer service organization that provides free reconstructive facial surgery for children with cleft lips. Mr. Lim is also DITO CME’s chief operating officer and concurrently chief innovation officer of its parent company, Udenna Corporation.