Operation Smile, a global children’s charity organization, is mounting a five-site medical mission in the Philippines to provide free reconstructive surgery to 750 indigent Filipinos with cleft lip and cleft palate over a period of nine days, commencing on the country’s independence day on June 12 up to the 20th.
In a joint statement, Operation Smile, Inc. co-founder and president Kathleen Magee and Operation Smile Philippines president Wigbert Funtanilla said multinational teams of cleft care professionals will hold simultaneous surgeries at the Ricardo Rodriguez Memorial Hospital in Bacolor, Pampanga; Sta. Ana Hospital in Manila; Adventist Hospital in Cebu City; Our Lady of Mercy Specialty Hospital in Bacolod City; and Brokenshire Hospital in Davao City.
Oral cleft is one of the country’s leading congenital defects, afflicting one in every 500 newborns or a total of 5,000 Filipinos every year. Of the estimated 140,000 born with the defect between 1982 and 2014, around 100,000 are still awaiting surgery.
The highly debilitating deformity disfigures the afflicted and impairs their normal speech. If they are not treated early, they are likely to lose their self-worth and become recluses and outcasts.
Operation Smile aims to attend to and eventually eradicate the backlog of cleft cases in the Philippines and ensure that new ones receive treatment before they turn one year old.
“Local resources alone will not suffice to achieve this tall goal at the moment so we are tapping the Operation Smile international network, via this annual mega mission, to augment our effort,” Funtanilla said.
“We have committed to help in any way we can,” Magee said. “We owe it to the Filipino people, whose ‘bayanihan’ spirit inspired us to grow Operation Smile into the global movement that it is today, mobilizing volunteers of different nationalities to treat cleft children of all colors and creeds – this is our gift and tribute to them.”
Magee, a nurse and clinical social worker, said she and husband, Dr. William, a plastic surgeon, established Operation Smile in 1982 following a medical mission in Naga City where they first saw the gravity of the cleft problem and the willingness of ordinary folks to help.
“We came to treat 40 children and saw ten times that number waiting for us at the hospital; we had to turn back hundreds but promised them that we would return,” Magee recalled, adding that what sustained their enthusiasm during the mission and after were the people they don’t even know who dropped by the mission site to bring food and made themselves useful.
Operation Smile has been coming back to the Philippines every year since and, in 1989, helped set up Operation Smile Philippines so that quality cleft care can be delivered to indigent Filipinos year-round.
The advocacy has spread across five continents. Operation Smile now has a corps of 5,400 highly trained, experienced and credentialed medical and non-medical volunteers from 80 countries doing missions in over 60 countries; an Operation Smile foundation similar to Operation Smile Philippines exists in 42 of those countries.
An Operation Smile mission team usually comprises of plastic surgeons, anaesthesiologists, pediatric intensivists, paediatricians, dentists, nurses, speech pathologists, child life specialists, biomedical technicians, medical records specialists and patient imaging technicians. All are volunteers who take a leave of absence from their employment or private practice for more than a week to do pro-bono work.
The missions are mainly funded by private corporate donations.