Operation Smile: Putting the smile back on Egypt’s children, one surgery at a time

Heba Fahmy
9 Min Read

CAIRO: There are hundreds of languages in the world, but everyone understands a smile. A child’s smile is particularly powerful: It’s sincere and has a quality of pure joy and innocence that’s highly contagious.

Out of this belief, Operation Smile, a worldwide children’s medical charity headquartered in the US, helped put the smile back on the faces of roughly 100 Egyptian children suffering from either a cleft lip or cleft palate.

Cleft lip and palate are caused by abnormal facial developments that take place prior to birth.

According to experts in Operation Smile, this is not merely a cosmetic problem, as it can seriously affect a child’s daily life by leaving children unable to nurse, eat or speak clearly.

“You have school-aged children who can’t speak,” Operation Smile speech pathologist Diane Blanchard told Daily News Egypt. “They’re so hyper-nasal and they are not able to [pronounce] many of the sounds that other children at school can, and even their teachers can’t understand what they’re saying. So they have a lot of difficulty interacting with their peers … teachers are not sure how much these children are learning [because] they can’t understand what [the children are] saying.”

Two-year-old Ahmed Ashraf, who suffers from both cleft lip and cleft palate, hasn’t been able to nurse or eat any solid foods since he was born.

His mother, Naglaa Ashraf, said she couldn’t breastfeed him because of this problem. “We give him a bottle and he can’t eat anything except liquids. When he eats anything it comes out of his nose.

“The problem is also with his speech; he [pronounces] most of the letters nasally,” Naglaa added.

Magda Gomaa, who was brought to Cairo from Bahareyya Oasis for an operation, has had a tough time growing up with cleft lip and palate.

“Whenever she goes out, children tease her because she has a problem,” Magda’s father Ahmed Gomaa told Daily News Egypt. “She gets upset and cries all the time, so she usually stays at home with her mom. We even took her out of school.”

Magda — like Ahmed Ashraf — also suffers from speech impairment, making it difficult for people to understand her.

“People treat me as if I have a defect,” 13-year-old cleft lip and palate sufferer Islam Wahid told Daily News Egypt.

Racing the Planet
Racing the Planet — a company that supports charities and initiatives around the world — sponsored Operation Smile’s dental mission to Bahareyya Oasis, a remote area where it’s difficult to receive needed surgery.

Racing the Planet organized a 250 km “Sahara Race” from Oct. 3 to Oct 9. The hope is that the event will raise awareness about Egyptian culture and Egyptian sites, in addition to raising awareness about different charities as well.

“About $100,000 or more is raised by the competitors, for different charities of their choosing,” Samantha Fancha, board director for the Sahara Race, told Daily News Egypt.

The competitors went through The Valley of the Whales and will end the race at the Giza Pyramids.

One hundred and fifty competitors representing 36 countries participated in the race, carrying everything they need for the race on their back for seven consecutive days.

The beginning of Operation Smile
One out of every 600 Egyptian babies is born with a cleft lip or palate.

The procedure is very simple. It usually takes 45 minutes and costs around LE 1,300 ($240). But unfortunately, in a country where 20 percent of Egypt’s population lives on less than $1 a day, according to United Nations’ statistics, many Egyptian cannot afford the surgery.

Operation Smile’s first medical mission to Egypt was in 2006. Since then, volunteers have provided these life-changing surgeries for free to more than 800 children.

“It’s tough watching the kids go through this,” said Daria Quzzolabola, program coordinator for Operation Smile. “They’re so young. They don’t deserve [the problems they face], but we’re here to make it better. I truly believe that if each one of us does [his or her] part, these kids will have a brilliant future and will change the world.”

Operation Smile was founded in 1982 by Dr. William P. Magee Jr., a plastic surgeon, and his wife Kathleen S. Magee, a nurse and clinical social worker.

Since its founding, more than 140,000 children and young adults with cleft lips, cleft palates and other facial deformities have been treated by Operation Smile.

The mission
The mission includes seven volunteer surgeons from the US, the Philippines, Venezuela, Russia and Egypt.

“I feel happy to help people,” plastic surgeon Mohamed El-Oteify, told Daily News Egypt. “It satisfies something inside me. If I can help a child get his life back, it makes me feel marvelous.”

Plastic surgeon Rafael Gottenger from Venezuela has been working with Operation Smile for 12 years, but this is his first mission in Egypt.

Gottenger administers approximately 20 to 25 surgeries each day with standardized equipment and facilities brought from the US.

“This gives us the opportunity to work as if we were in the US,” Gottenger said.

The mission also invests time in mentally and physically preparing the children for the surgeries. By preparing the children beforehand, the likelihood they will experience medical trauma is lessened and their recovery time is quickened.

“What I found in my clinical practice and in research is that if you help children and adolescents understand [what exactly will happen] in the surgery beforehand, they gain a sense of mastery and they’re not as scared of the surgery,” said Amy Bullock, a child life specialist at Operation Smile.

Bullock uses puppets to demonstrate to the children what will happen to them during the operations, engaging in a form of play with the children and their parents which is an approach not commonly used among Egyptian families.

Bullock, who has been on many missions with Operation Smile, said that “this mission in particular is where I’ve been so impressed with the parents. They’re very engaged in their child’s well-being and the psychological approaches that I teach them so that they can help their child.”

After a child receives surgery, the mission’s job isn’t over. The mission teaches parents about the recovery process before they leave the hospital with their child, and also provides them with various resources and information that will help them improve their child’s speaking and eating abilities following the surgery as well.

“Thank God,” said Naglaa Ashraf, a few days after Ahmed Ashraf’s surgery. “I can sense an improvement already. He’s eating better and speaking better.”

The mission’s work has certainly changed lives, and has given children and their families every reason to smile.

“It’s all about giving the children the chance to be normal and have the future that we have,” Quzzolabola said. –Additional reporting by Ian Lee.




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