Operation Smile: 25 years, missions in 25 countries

The World Journey of Smiles event next year will aim to treat 5,000 children with facial deformities.

By — Posted Oct. 23, 2006

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Putting a smile on a child's face brings a smile to plastic surgeon William P. Magee Jr., MD, DDS, and his peers.

For 24 years, Dr. Magee has worked to fix children's cleft lips and cleft palates around the world, and next year his organization, Operation Smile, will celebrate its 25th anniversary with a week of simultaneous medical missions in 25 countries.

In 1982, Dr. Magee and his wife, Kathleen, a nurse and social worker, went to the Philippines with other medical volunteers to treat children with cleft lips and other facial deformities. About 300 children showed up.

"It was overwhelming. Every one of their parents was tugging on our sleeve to see what we could do for them," said Dr. Magee, who co-founded Operation Smile with his wife and is now chief executive officer of the Norfolk, Va.-based charity.

After the Philippines, their efforts spread to Liberia, Ghana, China and other spots worldwide. Today, Operation Smile has programs in 25 countries and an international network of 5,000 medical professionals and other volunteers. It coordinates more than 30 medical missions each year. The organization's volunteers have treated more than 100,000 children and young adults over the years.

In the United States, Operation Smile provides families with children born with facial deformities with resources, including a list of doctors available to review a case. Dr. Magee also trains physicians in craniofacial techniques through the organization's annual Physicians' Training Program, which more than 650 health care professionals have attended.

"It doesn't seem right if we know how to solve some of these problems in the world and we're not solving them," he said. "You can take someone from hopelessness to possibility."

Sometimes Dr. Magee revisits patients years after their surgeries. He met two women he treated as young girls in the Philippines.

"One's a singer now. One's a college student," he said.

For its 25th anniversary, Operation Smile in November 2007 will conduct the week-long World Journey of Smiles -- 43 simultaneous medical missions in 25 countries with the goal of treating 5,000 children. As part of the anniversary, the organization also will host an international forum on medical diplomacy in its effort to create a global humanitarian network.

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