It all started 30 years ago. A woman asked Dr. William “Bill” Magee to return to Naga City even if her child was not among those operated on by his team of medical volunteers, and gave him a basket of bananas.
“It’s the only gift that I can give you for trying to take care of my daughter,” said the woman, whose 8-year-old child was born with a cleft lip and palate. The child was turned away as Magee’s team lacked facilities and could accommodate only 40 patients from among around 300 who came for constructive surgery.
What started as a medical mission in Naga, then led by Camarines Sur Gov. Felix Fuentebella, moved on, with the doctor and his wife Kathleen, a nurse, mobilizing more volunteers to serve a bigger number of children with congenital defects for free under “Operation Smile.”
Magee said television evangelist Pat Robertson singlehandedly shouldered the medical team’s first return trip to the Camarines Sur city by giving them $35,000.
Kathleen said she and her husband first met Fuentebella when the governor went to Texas and visited his grandson who was receiving treatment for cancer. She said Fuentebella had asked around for plastic surgeons who could help him give treatment to children with facial deformities in Camarines Sur.
She said she asked her husband to be part of the first medical team and to include her because of her background in pediatric nursing. The couple brought along their eldest daughter, who initiated a fund-raising campaign by organizing clubs in schools. By now, the number of clubs has reached around 900 spread all over the United States.
“Operation Smile” has since grown to 5,000 medical volunteers in 80 countries, performing surgeries on children with the defect known to afflict one in every 500 children worldwide.
In the past three decades, over 200,000 surgeries and more than two million medical evaluations of children afflicted with cleft lip and palate have been undertaken worldwide, including 24,000 Filipinos and 2,538 from Naga City.
This year, the mission aims to perform constructive surgery on 4,500 children in nine sites in the Philippines up to Dec. 2. A total of 10 international missions with 1,000 volunteers have come together to fulfill this goal.
Roberto Manzano, president and executive director of Operation Smile Philippines, said surgeries would be conducted in seven sites in Naga, Angeles City in Pampanga, Silay City in Negros Occidental, Cagayan de Oro City, Sta. Ana District in Manila, Cebu City and General Santos City, and in two sites in Koronadal, South Cotabato.
Oral cleft is among the top 12 congenital defects in the Philippines, afflicting 4,000 Filipinos born with harelip, cleft palate or both.
“Unknown to many, the deformity contributes to the high infant mortality rate in developing countries,” Manzano said. Data gathered by Operation Smile showed that 10 percent of cleft children or 400 die before reaching their first birthday and 12 percent or 480 do not live past the age of five.
The Philippines has no registry of children with such defects, but this could now be remedied after Smart Communications and Ateneo Java Wireless Center developed an application for Operation Smile Philippines that would allow social workers to document cleft births and send the records to a central database using a mobile phone.
Manzano said the group had tapped Spectrum, a nongovernment organization in Sarangani province, to pilot the application. “If the test proves successful, Operation Smile would soon be made available to Android phones,” he said.
Operation Smile has set up two cleft care centers—permanent facilities where volunteers could perform reconstructive surgeries or provide consultation services to cleft patients
year-round. These are in Brokenshire Hospital in Davao City and Sta. Ana Hospital in Manila.
Through a public-private partnership, a cleft care center could eventually be set up to provide services to patients all over the Philippines.
“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,” he said.
PHOTOS COURTESY OF OPERATION SMILE PHILIPPINES