A deeper feeling of significance emerged as volunteers arrived in Cebu City, Philippines. Not only was the devoted medical team participating in the fifth Women in Medicine surgical programme, but they had also arrived in the same country where Operation Smile’s mission first began 40 years ago.

In 1982, Operation Smile’s co-founders Dr. Bill and Kathy Magee landed in the Philippines with a small group of surgeons, nurses and other medical professionals hopeful of creating new smiles for patients like 9-year-old Kisha, pictured above, who are born with cleft lip and cleft palate. But as Kathy and Bill prepared to depart after weeks of delivering free cleft surgery to as many patients they could, families of the children who hadn’t received surgery approached them to express their gratitude for bringing this care to their communities.

“They are desperate for help. And you feel that. And when you can feel something, I think you do something,” Kathy said. “You look at their face. You see their eyes. Holding this child is like holding your own.”

In that moment, Bill and Kathy knew in their hearts that Operation Smile had been born and that the organization would not only return to the Philippines to treat the children who still needed cleft care, but continue expanding into more countries worldwide.

Members of the team wearing bright green tshirts, smiling and waving in Cebu City, Philippines. Photo: Rohanna Mertens.
This programme consisted of 60 volunteers representing 12 different medical specialties and 11 countries including the Philippines, Vietnam, the U.S., Sweden, South Africa, Australia, Guatemala, Peru, Colombia, Honduras and Egypt. Photo: Rohanna Mertens.
Two members of staff in surgical gowns and face masks caring for a patient.
Volunteer paediatrician Dr. Beatrice Skiold of Sweden examines 7-month-old Astherielle. With parents like Astherielle’s mom, Stella, traveling from various regions across the Philippines to receive care during this programme, volunteers like Beatrice were diligent with educating families about why the screening process is so vital for patients before undergoing cleft surgery.

In total, Beatrice and her fellow female volunteers successfully provided health evaluations to 69 hopeful patients. Photo: Rohanna Mertens.

Inspiring the next generation of female leaders

Many of the volunteers selected to join this programme have been involved with Operation Smile for a long time, devoting their skills, time and passion to our mission of changing lives. For some, this wasn’t their first experience being part of an all-female team. But whether it was their fifth programme or first programme with our Women in Medicine initiative, every volunteer shared in the mutual excitement, resiliency and hope of creating new smiles while helping mentor and inspire the next generation of female leaders in the medical field.

Empowering women

With every women’s programme, Operation Smile holds an education and leadership day where different speakers from the local, regional and global levels present on global standards of care, nutrition, speech language pathology, oral health, research and more.

Achieving gender equity in the medical field depends on the education and training opportunities offered by our Women in Medicine initiative. Specifically, it is achieved by a combination of educating women in low- and middle-income countries in advanced medical specialties, empowering women to become leaders in global medicine, and expanding opportunities for female health care workers from low-resource communities to receive mentorship.

Dentist Dr. Anna Cristina Capicoy; Sheryl Wong; orthodontist Dr. Vilma Arteaga; co-founder and president Kathy Magee; clinical coordinator Carolyn Bennett; clinical coordinator and nurse Mamta Shah; and global surgery fellow Maria Fernanda. Photo: Rohanna Mertens.
From left: dentist Dr. Anna Cristina Capicoy; Sheryl Wong; orthodontist Dr. Vilma Arteaga; co-founder and president Kathy Magee; clinical coordinator Carolyn Bennett; clinical coordinator and nurse Mamta Shah; and global surgery fellow Maria Fernanda. Photo: Rohanna Mertens.
Operation Smile's co-founder and president Kathy Magee. Photo: Rohanna Mertens.
Operation Smile’s co-founder and president Kathy Magee. Photo: Rohanna Mertens.

Educate, empower and elevate women

“It has been an honour to work with women in medicine all over the world to help create a sustainable impact through involvement, caring and inspiration,” said Operation Smile’s co-founder and president Kathy Magee, who has participated in multiple all-women programmes. “Working alongside these women to make a difference and create environments to educate, empower, and elevate women has been a highlight of my life.”

As a woman in medicine herself, Kathy shares in the ambition of Operation Smile providing education pathways for women to be global leaders in health care and surgery. With 40 years of cleft surgery excellence in low-resource settings, the Operation Smile team knows first-hand that global health equity rests on achieving gender equity.

Three members of surgical staff wearing surgical cap, gown and face masks, look down.
With 69 patients having received comprehensive health screenings, volunteer surgeons Drs. Arlene Cala of the Philippines, left, and Samantha Diokno of the U.S. helped create new smiles for the 55 children who were deemed healthy enough to undergo anaesthesia by our medical team. Photo: Rohanna Mertens.

A positive impact for generations of women in health care

With the goals of quantifying the patient experience, evaluating the impact of an all-women medical team and providing an in-depth understanding of shared experiences women in medicine can face, our research team devoted time to survey and interview willing volunteers and patients. 

The research gathered during the surgical week in the Philippines was the culmination of a year-long project. The results our team collected in Cebu City joins the data collected during the other Women in Medicine programmes throughout 2022, including locations in Morocco, Peru and Malawi.

With hopes of publishing this research next year, the Operation Smile research team eagerly anticipates how we can take what we’ve learned and apply it in a way that positively impacts this generation and the next generation of women in health care.

Small child having medical observations done with an oxygen monitor on his finger, supported by adult hands.
John with Pre/Post Nurse Charlotta Hansson during Operation Smile’s WIM all-female surgical program in Cebu City. Photo: Rohanna Mertens.
Nine year old Kisha dabs at her mouth with a tissue whilst looking into a handheld mirror after her surgery.
Nine-year-old Kisha picked up a mirror after surgery to see her new smile for the first time, becoming one of 55 patients who received life-changing cleft care. Photo: Rohanna Mertens.

A brighter and healthier future

Similarly to the women who benefited from the education and empowerment opportunities provided during Operation Smile’s final women’s programme of 2022, Kisha now has a brighter and healthier future ahead of her.

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