Paul Toms, CEO of corporate partner EMEA Recruitment chatted to Kathy Magee, Operation Smie Co-founder, President and CEO, during a recent epsiode of the EMEA podcast series.

Paul and Kathy discussed how Operation Smile has evolved over the past 42 years to become one of the biggest organisations to provide free, safe cleft care for children and adults around the world.

Bill and Kathy Magee during one of the first programmes in the Philippines

You can read a transcript of the main discussion points below:

Paul: Hello, everybody. Welcome to the next episode of the EMEA Recruitment Podcast, sponsored in partnership as ever with our good partners over at Operation Smile. We are delighted to welcome Kathy Magee onto the show. A very special guest we have today.

Kathy: I’m so excited to be here. I am just looking at all you do for people and clients to make sure things are in order in different offices. So, kind of like what Operation Smile does. We take care of people, but we have to make sure it’s quality, it’s the right procedure, and we’re very safe.
We’re very strong on safety with these children because some of them have never been to a hospital. Their families have never been in a hospital, so they’re afraid of what’s going to happen. Our teams are great. We put our arms around these children and their families and take care of them to the best of our ability.

Paul: Thanks. I’ve got to say, we’re probably on our 200th episode of the podcast and I’m never normally nervous before coming into a podcast. But today, I think I am obviously a little bit in awe of what you and your husband have done with the charity, how you’ve started it, and where it is today. These things will come up in the line of questions today, so I’m really looking forward to it.
Again, a huge thanks for spending the time with us today to go through these. I think the first question that I ask every guest coming onto the podcast, given that the show is in partnership with Operation Smile, is what was the last thing that made you smile? So, I thought it would be a bit crazy not to ask you this question, given it’s the company you founded and so on. So, what was the last thing that made you smile, Kathy?

Kathy: Well, I have lots of grandchildren, we deal a lot with children, and I have a paediatric nursing background. So, for me to have a child giggle and smile when I hold them that’s the best thing that can ever happen. When we bring them in and out of surgery and see that change in that child and that smile on their face after years of not being able to do that, that makes my day. My family and staff ask me, what keeps me up at night? And I say, we just need to take care of our children; they’re out there, and we need to do this. So, that smile on that child’s face is so important to me.

Paul: That’s great to hear. And I know coming up here, there are a few questions aligned to the programmes that you guys do and the great work you do, but also some of the challenges associated with that as well. And I mean, obviously, this is looking back quite a while ago now, when you started Operation Smile, but today, if you look and see what it’s like and what you’ve achieved… And I thought I’d ask you what it feels like to be in this position now in the business?

Kathy: Well, we have slowly taken steps forward, we see a problem. How do we address the problem? And so, for me now, I can address the problem and say, we’re going to take care of that problem, whatever that may be. And we are talking more about getting closer to the patient. This is so important because we see families all the time. They don’t have any shoes on their feet, and they will walk for miles and miles and days to get to us.
I can make these decisions saying, let’s take a look, not just at doing the surgery for that child, let’s look at that whole family and look at the needs and get out to where the people are. I can make decisions now that I could only suggest before, now I can say, all right, let’s get the team and let’s see how we’re going to make it happen. That’s been a great thing. You know, it’s a lot of responsibility because you know it’s a life that you’re actually changing. You know, how many times do we get to be able to change a child’s life? Not so many. And so, people are willing to commit and help us to do that.
I feel like those decisions now and those responsibilities are on me, and I have to make this move for the future to take care of more people and more children. So it’s been a lot, but we’re just going to do it. That’s the way it is. We know what we can do. We have a certain ability to be able to do this surgery, and we know there are lots of children out there with a cleft lip and cleft palate. It can be changed. They can have a life. They can eat, speak, go to school, have friends and not be made fun of. This is a big deal for a child. I now have taken the responsibility to make sure we do more, and we get to more children.

Paul: As someone who was born with cleft lip and palate myself in the UK, we take it for granted that these operations are available and don’t really think too much about them in the developed world, but in the developing countries the skills aren’t there largely. As you mentioned, someone’s life can be quite a miserable existence if they don’t get this situation worked on.

Kathy: You know, I agree with you. We take certain things for granted in our developed countries, in Europe and the United States, you get an appointment, you go to a doctor – That is not happening out there in probably 85% of the world. We feel like we’re privileged to be able to help change that ability to get some medical attention to have a healthier life. There’s a lot going on, but we’re going to try to do it. We train people, whether it’s anaesthesia, paediatrician, we can train a whole team so that they can do more in the district hospital.

Paul: Taking you back to 1982 when you decided to start the business with your husband, Dr. Bill Magee, and I guess the question that I had is why specifically cleft lip and palate? Was there any reason behind this specialism at that time?

Kathy: I have a paediatric nursing background and my husband is a paediatric plastic surgeon. He has a dental and a medical degree plus his plastic surgery. So, he concentrates on this area of the face.
He started here in the United States with a practice. He got very good at taking care of cleft lip, and cleft palate, not as many as we see every day in many countries that don’t have this ability. We went for the first time and were asked to go to the Philippines. We had no idea what we were about to see. And we jumped islands, there are 7,000 islands in the Philippines.
We jumped islands, and saw lots of kids with cleft lip and cleft palate. The last island we were in, honestly, there were 15 of us, and we were overwhelmed. 300 children surrounded us and their families, 15 of us in the middle of this lecture hall. We were literally in tears because we knew we couldn’t touch it.
He said let’s organise and do the best we can and take care of as many as possible. And that trip alone, we did just 40 out of all those kids. For us to leave, it just didn’t feel good because we knew we could take care of it. And that’s where we started saying, on the plane back, what could we do to go back and just finish helping those children. And here we are 40 years later.
We had no idea all of the patients living with untreated cleft lip and cleft palate all over the world. That really got us started.
Then people started asking us, could we go to Kenya? Could we go to South America? And we kept saying, oh, okay. We never said no. No is not an answer here. We would always say, well, let’s find some friends. Let’s see because we networked with the Plastic Surgery Society worldwide.
We had friends living all over the world. We started really pushing on these different countries and saying here. And once somebody else went, they told their friends, they said, hey, this is the best thing to do. You’re very good at cleft lip and palate. Let’s go. You can go to this other country with me.
Now we have 6,000 volunteers ready to go. And for us, that’s so important. We credential them, whether it’s the surgeon, the anaesthesia, the intensivist, all those people. Biomed – nobody thinks about them, but if we don’t have our equipment working, we’re in trouble; so, we always have a Biomed person on our teams.

Paul: Is it quite challenging to keep managing the emotions and the emotional side of things? Because, I’ve watched an interview with yourself and Bill talking about the strong emotions you go through, when you’re going on the programmes, but also running the business. And I think, because it’s something you’re very passionate about, it’s something where there’s so many emotions, not just for you, your family, but the patients, their families, when everybody involves such emotions that, you know, when you’re looking at the business side, you mentioned it. It’s not easy to get these things going, these kinds of things you’ve done, you’ve given the highlights of what you achieve. But I guess getting up to that point, there’s a lot of things that don’t work out. You want things to get from A to B as quickly as possible. And if it was easy, everybody would do it, but it’s not easy to do it. So does it magnifies the emotions because you’re working in most of the business anyway, you started the company, you can see you’ve got this massive vision and then something goes wrong. And there’s nothing you can do to control and think, I’ve got to either change my goal or we’ve got to, revaluate things. So how do you manage those emotions as part of this really?

Kathy: Well, I just do a little story because there’s a lot of emotion on all these programmes, all these programmes, because it’s a mother or a father that’s just desperate it’s not going to happen. So this was one of our first trips to Vietnam. We were the first Americans in after the war. I’m walking through the hallway and this mother motions to me of course, I don’t speak that language, but I know she wants something. I go in the room the child is about seven days old and she’s trying to spoon-feed it with some water, little milk and I’m like, oh, boy, that child is not going to make it. That’s very emotional for us to say that child is going to die right in front of our face, we do not want that. So I went to the team and they were like, what are you talking about? We can never put that child under anaesthesia. That child is not going to make it.
So I said well, let’s think about it. And so the whole team is emotional around one child. But at the end of the day, the dentist, we have dentists on all our teams because there is a lot of structure with the team. The dentist said, I have an idea. But OK, and he said, I’m going to make an obturator, that’s a little appliance that you put in the roof of the mouth. So it blocks the hole if you have a cleft palate so the child can eat. OK, that’s great, he said, I don’t know what else to do, the team said, I don’t know what else either. So he said, I’m doing it a seven day old, you have to put an appliance in it that’s very small. Anyway, fast forward. We’re finishing that trip, and he said, I’ve got the obturator. OK, so that’s going to block the hole so hopefully that child can eat. We’ll block the roof of the mouth, the whole team think how emotional this is. The whole team forms around this bed as he puts this obturator in the child’s mouth. It fits perfectly, now the mom can really start feeding that child, with a bottle. And we’re like, that is the best we can do. So we hope that child will be fed and we can finally do the surgery. And guess what? One year later, when we went back. The first people on that line with that mother and that fat little one year old and we did that surgery. It’s very emotional because it’s a life. It doesn’t matter if it’s just one. It’s a life that was saved because of one person’s ability to make a change and what that child needed so that surgery could be done. Amazing. It was amazing for all of us because the surgeons were like, that’s not working for us. But the dentist said, I’ve got an idea. So like I said, you have an idea, but can you implement it? And he did. He made that obturator and made it fit that child all year. We were able to do the surgery. Boom, you don’t need that obturator anymore. So it’s a full team, a full emotion that goes on every day during these trips.
It shows that it’s not just a surgery, not just dental, we also follow up with these kids with speech therapy and nutrition to make sure they’re eating properly. And the moms are eating properly so they don’t, have issues with malnutrition. That’s very important to us. So we follow through with these kids. It’s not just we do surgery and we’re done. Every one of those countries have clinics where those kids come back to and they do the follow-up on them. So important to just follow up and make sure they’re going to be OK for life.

Paul: You mentioned earlier on about the great team that you have the volunteers that are involved. I’m guessing here, but I guess you could always do it with more volunteers? on every mission you go on. I suppose, unfortunately, you can’t help everybody on every mission. There’s always going to be people that you run out of time or resources to be able to help. So the more volunteers, the more skills that you have in and from raising so on, it’s always going to be beneficial to keep that mission moving forward, really.

Kathy: Yeah, the volunteers are key. If we take, say yourself and any donors on a trip, they look at the surgery that’s being done, right? That child has a life. But they say your volunteers are incredible. They take care of their children like their own. They pick them up, they hug them, they make sure they’re comfortable. This is a scary spot. Handing your child into an operating room that you’ve never seen before. And they trust it’s a lot of trust that they give us, we have to do it the correct way. Volunteers are always necessary. We have different programmes now. One of them is called the champion programme, these are volunteers who have been with us for many years. We’ve asked them to come in and help train the medical people that are in these district hospitals because they need the training, so excellent trainers coming to our district hospital, medical people training so that we have the best that we are going to give so that people have good healthcare. Like I said, 85 percent of people have no healthcare in the world. So that and then we have had another programme because we see a lot of women are in healthcare and we need more. If we’re really going to address 85 percent of the world, you need more. So we’re pushing on women in medicine. We’ve had four all women in medicine trips, programmes. We were able to find them from everywhere, a surgeon, anaesthesia, biomedical. We did one in Malawi, one in Peru, one in the Philippines, and Morocco We were able to get them there. And now we’re driving on more education. We’ve gotten some scholarship money to train more women to go into medicine and to take leadership positions that help lead and guide the rest. So we’re really pushing on women in medicine, the champions. These are new programmes that we’re moving forward so that we can really expand what we’re doing for the future.

Paul: And it’s great to see. Obviously the subject of diversity and inclusion is well spoken about in different companies and on platforms like LinkedIn and so on. I think, the more that companies like yourselves and others can do to highlight that and get more women involved in these positions then it’s good. It’s good to see because, I think as soon as a few people start doing it, then the ball starts rolling and people realise I can do that and try to learn the skills in order to get involved as well. Just before we hit record today, we were talking a bit off air about yourself, you were talking about inspirational women in their roles. I was asking you, you’re still doing a lot of travel and I think the answer is definitely yes. So you’re still as motivated, driven and full of energy as ever. We’re going back to 1982, so that’s fully driven and motivated as you were then.

Kathy: Yeah, when I was in Rwanda lately, it’s amazing what this country has done for their people. I had a meeting with President Kagame, and he said, all I want for my people is the best healthcare. Well, that’s easy then for him. He’ll have an economy because people can work, they’re healthy. They can take care of things.
You know, that inspires me to meet with the president of a country and say, all I want is healthcare. And then when I met with the Minister of Health, he said, could you help us? We have no intensive care. Yes, we can. So we’ll drive to get new things in that country so they have better medical care and the training that goes with that.
So that and the students, I was just with these high school students that trained for the trips they are going on. India, Malawi, Madagascar, Peru, Morocco, they’re going all over the place. They were so excited. These are kids, high school students that have now instead of doing something else, using your phone all day, they’ve committed to go on these trips, but they have to do a lot before they go. We have a conference every summer. They were part of the conference, they have a club in their school. So these kids are committed to giving back and to really share what they have, their talents to a child in a country. And it’ll be so beneficial to them and to the child they touch. We had a staff member who was in one of our countries she got in. We have a child life area, we get the kids to start playing because they’ve never played before, we get them calm so they’re ready for the OR and then when the child was ready to go to the OR this staff spent so much time with this child instead of taking the mother’s hand to walk to the OR he turned to the staff and took her hand and they walked in and she handed that child into that operating room. So, lots of emotion, but important to be part of the team and to give back. People have so many talents these days and we can connect. This phone is a connector worldwide. We do a lot with emotion. We do a lot with talent, time, you know, and the treasure you have to share with others.

Paul: I think it’s really a great way to end the show. I think I can’t think of another quote to finish on really, Kathy. A huge thank you for your time today. I know that you’re really busy. There’s a lot of things going on and I really appreciate the time you spent with myself.
I know the network will take a lot from it and we’re helping to promote the book, Sloathar the Sloth, which I’ve written for Operation Smile. I know you’ve written some really nice words for the book as well, which we are really grateful for. So, a huge thank you for going through this. But more importantly, a huge thank you for everything you’ve done, since starting Operation Smile. The lives you’ve changed and the impact you’ve had on their families and people in general. It can’t be calculated, really, the impact you’ve had. So, a huge thank you to yourself and Bill for starting it all up and for the impact that you’ve made across the world.

Kathy: We say it’s been an honour for us. We have met so many people, so many lives changed, so many students who started with us 40 years ago have come back to us to do things either surgically, A lot of these students go into public health after that. So, it’s helpful for the future. We see a lot from what we have done, but we are honoured to be a part of this whole thing.

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