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'Operation Smile' Changes Faces, Lives


Operation Smile is an international group of medical professionals who perform reconstructive surgery, free of charge, for children with facial deformities. This year, Operation Smile commemorated its 25th anniversary by conducting simultaneous medical missions across the globe. Cathy Majtenyi caught up with the team in Nairobi, Kenya and files this report for VOA.

Millicent Akinyi and her five-month-old daughter Olivia Achieng are among hundreds of people who have come to Kenyatta National Hospital in Nairobi seeking help.

Olivia was born with a double cleft palate and cleft lip. Akinyi describes her initial reaction to Olivia's condition. "I was shy. I thought that my husband would beat me because the first time, I was using family planning. When I went home I was stranded because he may beat me that I am the one who caused this thing. When he came to the hospital, in fact, I refused to come home."

The Operation Smile team records Olivia's medical information and gets her parents' consent, takes her picture, and examines her before deciding that she is eligible to receive the surgery.

The big day has arrived. Olivia is being prepared for surgery. Surgeons work on her for more than two hours. Then it is off to the recovery unit.

Millicent Akinyi is thrilled with the results. She says, "I was happy because she is now good, she looks smart."

Olivia was one of 381 patients in three clinics in Kenya whom doctors treated for cleft lips, cleft palates, burns and other facial deformities during Operation Smile's World Journey of Smiles medical missions in mid-November.

The clinics in Kenya were among 40 sites in 25 countries that participated in the commemorative medical missions.

Twenty-five years ago, plastic surgeon Dr. Bill Magee and his wife Kathy, a former nurse and clinical social worker, founded Operation Smile in the United States.

The organization consists of some 5,000 doctors, nurses, counselors, and other professionals around the world. They volunteer their time to conduct surgeries in periodic clinics in 25 countries.

Plastic surgeon Ankur Pandya is one of the volunteers. He explains his involvement with Operation Smile. "I was diagnosed with cancer in 2004 and I underwent chemotherapy very successfully. I wanted to give back, and I have been involved ever since."

Julia Kibe is a nurse and the clinical coordinator of the Kenyan mission. She has been with Operation Smile since it started in Kenya 20 years ago. She says a major accomplishment has been dispelling myths about facial deformities. "This is a deformity, maybe [caused by] nutritional [deficiencies]. It is not a curse. It is not a bad spell. So they bring the kids out for [surgery]. And once they are done, they go and tell the others that this thing can be done, 'look at my child,' so do not hide them anymore."

In addition to providing free surgeries, the Operation Smile trains local medical professionals and donates equipment so that treatment can continue on a more regular basis.

And that makes a world of difference to people who can now face the future with new confidence.

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