What is Operation Smile?

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What is Operations Smile?

Back in 1982, a group of medical professionals volunteered for travel to the Philippines for the purpose of repairing the cleft lips and cleft palates of Filipino children. They came equipped to treat 40 children. When they arrived, they found that the need for their services far surpassed the equipment and personnel resources that they had on hand to meet the enormity of the challenge.

In many places around the world the need for health care far exceeds the resources available to provide the care.

The 40 children that they were able to treat paled in comparison to the approximately 300 families that presented them with children that needed their services. Desperate families showed up and begged the surgeons to perform corrective procedures on their children. Mothers had tears in their eyes as they described the tragic predicament that their children were placed in because of their facial ailments.

The experience was heart wrenching for the medical teams as they packed up their equipment and left behind hundreds of children with facial abnormalities that they had the skill to correct.

Two of the volunteers were so moved by their time in the Philippines that they vowed to return and perform life changing surgeries on as many children as they possibly could.

Passionately driven to bring their ideal into reality, the volunteers went straight to work. Through grassroots campaigns, fundraising and networking they were able to secure donations of equipment, personnel and funding. They returned to the Philippines and helped 100 additional patients. Even with their valiant efforts, they found that their contributions fell well short of their intended goal. They felt as though all children born with facial maladies and without the resources needed to surgically repair these issues were their responsibility.

Undaunted, they went on to create one of the largest and most sophisticated volunteer organizations ever to exist. They dubbed their humanitarian venture Operation Smile.

Operation Smile

Operation Smile is a nonprofit organization formed in 1982 in Virginia Beach, Virginia. Operation Smile was co-founded by Dr. William Magee, Jr. (a plastic surgeon) and his wife Kathleen Magee, a nurse and clinical social worker. Dr. William Magee, Jr. and Nurse Kathleen S. Magee continue to serve as CEO and President of the organization, respectively.

Dr. William Magee, Jr. and wife Kathleen Magee created Operation Smile

(In addition to fulfilling the responsibilities of his executive duties, Dr. William Magee, Jr. still performs Operation Smile surgeries to this day.)

The efforts of Operation Smile are primarily focused on treating the facial deformities of children and young adults. To date, the organization has conducted surgical procedures on hundreds of thousands of patients. 

The facial abnormalities that they use their expertise to mend include (but are not limited to) cleft lip and cleft palate surgical procedures for children around the world.

In the decades since the focus of their efforts was concentrated in the Philippines, Operation Smile has gone on to operate in more than 60 countries worldwide. Since Operation Smile’s maiden procedure, there have been many improvements made in impoverished countries around the world with regards to access to medical care. Unfortunately, access to surgical care in the developing world has lagged far behind that progress.

For example, a study by researchers at the University of Toronto found that only 43% of India’s population lived within a radius of 31 miles of a quality hospital with elite level surgical capabilities.

Only 43% of India's population lives within 31 miles of a hospital with surgical capabilities

In wealthy nations, approximately 2.7% of the surgeries that are performed every year are caesarian sections. In impoverished countries, caesarian sections account for almost 30% of surgeries. This is a strong indicator that many other life enhancing procedures are not being performed on vast numbers of people in these countries.

Those from developing nations that are fortunate enough to have access to surgical procedures have additional obstacles to face. The rate of post-surgery complications such as infections during recovery is far higher in poorer countries.

As a result of these findings, in 2015 the World Health Organization (WHO) adopted a resolution to rival this problem. Resolution 68.15 states “Strengthening and emergency and essential surgical care and anaesthesia as a component of universal health coverage.”.

Operation Smile’s dedication to the ideal of establishing quality surgical care venues to all of the world predates the World Health Organization’s official stance on the matter by several decades.


Cleft lip and cleft palate are a group of facial abnormalities that can occur together or independent of one another. These abnormalities are birth defects. Though the exact cause of these conditions is not thoroughly understood, there are risk factors that have been identified in mothers that deliver children with cleft lips and/or cleft palates.

These risk factors are:

-Specific medications (for example, medicines used to treat seizures).



-Smoking during pregnancy.

-Mothering children over the age of 35.

(This is by no means an indictment of physical attributes or behaviors that have been linked to the delivery of babies with facial abnormalities. Most mothers that have these conditions do not deliver babies with cleft issues. The full range of causes of this problem are not entirely understood. Still, the behaviors and physical attributes itemized have been linked to this birth defect.)

A cleft lip contains an opening in the lip that can extend into 1 or both nostrils.

This is an example of a cleft lip on one side of the mouth that extends into the opening of 1 of the nostrils:

Cleft lipy

This is an example of a cleft lip that extends into both nostrils:

Cleft lip on both sides

A cleft palate occurs when the roof of the mouth extends into the nose.

This is an example of a cleft palate:

Cleft palate

This is an example of a patient with a cleft lip and a cleft palate:

Cleft lip and cleft palate

Cleft lip and cleft palate are not just aesthetic issues. The disorder can cause a host of health problems for those afflicted. These include (but are not limited to);

-Chronic ear infections

-Difficulties with speech

-Problems with hearing

-Lack of ability to consume food and drink

In the developed world, cleft lip and cleft palate have an incidence of 1 to 2 per 100,000 births. The death rate from this condition is presently around 3,300 global annual deaths. This is down significantly from the 7,600 global deaths recorded in 1990. The reduction in the death rate is due to the valiant worldwide effort that has been undertaken to cure infants and toddlers of this ailment.

Patient outcomes

Surgery successfully treats cleft lip and cleft palate. In the case of cleft lip, surgery will often be done within a few months of an infant’s birth. Cleft palate surgery is usually done anytime up to and including the eighteenth month of life.

Often times, nasal reconstruction surgery is needed to correct deformities to one or more of the patient’s nostrils.

Once the surgery is complete, the aftercare regimen begins. Many patients will need follow up dental treatment (cleft problems can be very detrimental to the health of teeth) and speech therapy services to bring their outcomes closer to perfection.

Before and after cleft lip and cleft palate surgery

Before and after cleft lip and nasal reconstruction surgery

Operation Smile’s NEXT Medical Conference

The Operation Smile NEXT Medical Conference is a yearly event that brings together healthcare practitioners, lawmakers and members of the research community to innovate methods for improving and enhancing surgical care around the globe. The most prominent attendees include pediatricians, anesthesiologists and plastic surgeons. In much of the world there are many obstacles to high level healthcare. The problems that Operation Smile tackles will continue to be a challenge for the foreseeable future.  

Operation Smile has shown the world that highly trained professionals are willing and able to make the world a better place with no profit motivation whatsoever.  Operation Smile's sole motivation is to cure their patients so that their smiles can shine.  

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