By the time she was 12, Laura had undergone more surgeries than most people have in a lifetime. Yet, throughout her journey, she found comfort and confidence during her visits to Operation Smile Colombia’s care centre.
Laura was born in Colombia with a cleft lip and palate. She had her first surgery at 11 months old and since then, has been under the care of the team in Colombia, where she’s having orthodontic treatment and speech therapy.
Nancy and Jose Alejandro, Laura’s parents, were shocked to discover their daughter’s cleft condition. Despite multiple prenatal ultrasounds, her condition remained undiscovered until birth.
Thankfully Nancy’s mother-in-law knew about Operation Smile and at two days old, the family took Laura to visit the Operation Smile care centre for the first time. She was, at this stage, too young for surgery, but it was an important connection for the family and gave them hope for the future.
When Laura was 11 months old, they returned to the centre for surgery to repair her cleft lip. On seeing Laura’s new smile for the first time, Nancy was elated and admits she barely recognised her daughter, “I remembered how difficult it was before surgery and how I had to feed her with a spoon, and it would go all over her chest,” she said. “Knowing that was over made me very happy.”
Laura’s now a regular at the care centre and particularly enjoys her speech therapy sessions because she loves talking to people. When asked about the centre and how it makes her feel, she said, “It makes me very happy!”
Behind a smile
The journey to a brand new life
Every child’s cleft care journey is different – but with the support of our medical volunteers and specialists, each path leads them to a happier, healthier future.
Cleft surgery transforms lives, but for many children with cleft conditions, there’s a complex package of care needed to make sure they’re strong enough for surgery and recovery.
2. Raising awareness – reducing stigma
3. Nutritional support
4. Speech therapy and audiology
5. Child life therapy
6. Cleft lip surgery
Meet some of the experts who support our patients – and their families – on the path to their life-changing surgery.
In the next newsletter we’ll be featuring the second part of the journey, covering dentistry, orthodontics, cleft palate surgery, speech and language therapy.
Your wonderful support at work
Scenes of hope in Mzuzu, Malawi
Medical volunteers from Malawi, Kenya, Ethiopia and the UK recently came together to provide care to children and young adults in Malawi.
It was the first surgical programme to be held at the Mzuzu Central Hospital, in the north of the country. The terrain here is remote and hilly with few main roads to connect it to the bigger cities – so the programme was vital in enabling locals to access specialist care which may otherwise have been out of reach.
During the week-long programme the team of 40 volunteers gave life-changing surgery and cleft care to 44 children and young adults.
Finding new patients remains a key focus for Operation Smile Malawi, and a team of more than 60 community volunteers and patient ambassadors work across the country to seek out those who need care. By travelling to remote areas, they can raise awareness about cleft conditions, register new patients, and challenge misconceptions and superstition about cleft.
More than words – speech therapy helps children thrive
Chanju’s a volunteer speech pathologist and provides vital support to patients, both before and after surgery. After initially being invited to attend an Operation Smile surgical programme to find out more about our work, Chanju saw firsthand the positive impact of comprehensive cleft care on the children she met. This experience inspired Chanju to lend her time and expertise to help more children, and she’s been an Operation Smile volunteer now since 2019.
Around half of children with a cleft palate will need help with their speech and it’s no surprise that the ability to communicate with friends is vital for a child’s development. Without support, children with cleft palate will often withdraw from situations and avoid interacting with friends for fear of being teased.
“Some of the family members, even the teachers, their friends, can’t understand what the child is saying, so they need that support with their speech after surgery.” Chanju explains, “Every time when the child wants to speak maybe to a friend, they’re afraid they will say, ‘ah you can’t speak properly!’ so that child always feels shy and stays quiet when they are playing. Then they don’t have that time of playing, just because they feel, ‘If I say something, they’ll laugh at me.’ So, yes, speech therapy is very important to help them build confidence.”
Mother’s joy is reward for Jackie
Jackie’s been a nurse for 23 years, and in her day job, works at Guys and St Thomas’ hospital as a clinical nurse specialist in cleft conditions. She’s volunteered on seven Operation Smile surgical programmes and is passionate about sharing her skills and expertise with the next generation of colleagues and medical volunteers.
Many of our volunteers report that seeing the impact of their work on our patients and their families is what keeps them coming back for more. It’s often said that volunteering feeds the soul, and it’s easy to see why, with experiences like the one Jackie describes below when asked to recall a favourite Operation Smile memory.
“One of them that sticks in my mind is a lovely, lovely mum. We’d done the surgery and looked after her child in recovery. And the moment when a mum comes to see their baby is always emotional, but this mum was so excited. She was beside herself, doing roly polies down the centre aisle of the recovery room! And when she saw her baby for the first time with the cleft repaired, oh my goodness we were all very teary – tears of joy! It’s wonderful because you can just see the life that you’re giving back. We always get much more back than we ever give as volunteers!”
Smile Heroes in action
Align Technology visits Cairo surgical programme
Our corporate partner Align Technology recently sent two members of their clinical team to visit an Operation Smile surgical programme in Cairo, to see first-hand how their funds have supported our life-changing work.
After meeting patients and their families, Dr Rashmi Ashok, Clinical Specialist from Align said: “When a child hugs you and the mother smiles, it is the most beautiful realisation that you are not only changing the life of one person but also the many around them!”
Employee fun raises funds
In March this year, Med Tech UK and Depuy Synthes, both brands of global partner Johnson and Johnson, raised funds for Operation Smile with a variety of fun activities including an ice bucket challenge, cornhole game and a ball pit search.
The fundraising was led by corporate social responsibility lead Scott Jenkins who said: “I truly believe that it is our duty to help others in life. I’m extremely proud to support Operation Smile and know that by doing fundraising through running challenges, I can help to try and positively impact the lives of people who require cleft care around the world!”
Smile heroes like you
Barnaby’s trek for smiles
Barnaby and friends from Thurlbear Primary School tackled wind and rain to trek 10 miles around Wimbleball Lake raising more than £3,000!
Barnaby was born with a cleft lip and palate, and after his most recent surgery, which involved a bone graft on his gum, he was moved to help children with cleft conditions in parts of the world where surgery isn’t an option.
Quiz time for Swindon Rotary
Members of Swindon North & Thamesdown Rotary Club are always keen to do their bit for children’s charities, with events like their annual Swimathon and Santa Sleigh collection.
Most recently they held a quiz and ploughman’s lunch and raised £1,500 – thanks to all involved!
Marathon smile heroes
Our team of marathon runners raised an impressive £21,499 for children with cleft conditions at this year’s TCS London Marathon.
Jenny Walker was one of the amazing team of fundraisers who took part, inspired to run by her daughter, who was born with a cleft lip and palate.
She told us: “I felt compelled to do something positive and give back after seeing first-hand the amazing care my daughter has received and continues to receive at Alder Hey Children’s Hospital in Liverpool. My husband and I feel very passionate about the work that Operation Smile carry out internationally and set about organising a charity evening to coincide with the marathon with a raffle and live music to help raise as much funds as we possibly could. Our kind friends and family helped us achieve our goal, all inspired by our own little Smile Hero who has blossomed into a beautiful confident little girl!”
Legacy gifts transform lives
Thanks to the generosity of our supporters, last financial year we received more than £679,000 from legacy gifts – enough to change the lives of more than 4,500 children and their families!
This vital income helps to fund every aspect of the comprehensive cleft care we provide, from nutritional support, dentistry, orthodontics, speech therapy and psychosocial care, to the life-saving surgery that transforms the futures of thousands of children like Iamady.
To find out more about leaving a gift in your will, please contact our legacy manager Pippa Fawcett on 020 3475 5126 or view the information on our website.
Updates from around the world
New cleft centre in Cebu City, Philippines
Operation Smile Philippines has announced they will work with the Cebu City government and executives of the Mariquita Salimbangon Foundation Inc, to build the first ever Comprehensive Cleft Care Centre in Cebu. The centre will include five operating tables as well as offering diagnosis and medical evaluation across key specialties: feeding and nutrition, dental care, speech services, counselling, support, and surgical care. The centre enables patients from Cebu City and the surrounding area, to access free, safe cleft care and treatment.
Operation Smile Egypt dental programme
Operation Smile Egypt conducted a dental programme in Cairo in conjunction with the Faculty of Dentistry at Al-Azhar University. During the programme, the team of volunteers examined 386 children and provided 824 different dental procedures. An education day also covered the science behind dentistry, presented by local and international medical professionals. More programmes in Cairo are planned in the future, meaning further collaboration with other partner hospitals and health authorities in the city.
Bolivia Champion Programme
During March’s Champion Programme in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, mentors paired up with eager mentees to help address the need for trained health care professionals, while providing life-changing surgery to more than 60 patients.
Through educational exchanges and long-term mentorship, the programme aims to build local capacity by increasing the number of available medical professionals equipped with the passion and skills to serve. This initiative has also been successfully implemented in Guatemala, Ghana, Colombia and Ethiopia.
Increasing access to safe surgery in Ghana
Around 5 billion people globally lack access to safe, affordable, and timely surgical care. Low-and middle-income countries like Ghana carry the highest burden.
Operation Smile’s Health Policy and Advocacy Department and the team from Operation Smile Ghana are currently working with the Ministry of Health of Ghana and the National Surgical, Obstetric, and Anaesthesia Plan (NSOAP) Technical Working Group to develop the country’s first NSOAP. The plan will serve as a national strategic roadmap to increase access to safe, timely and affordable surgery obstetric trauma and anaesthesia care for all Ghanaians.
Operation Smile has been supporting the Ministry of Health in Ghana and the NSOAP Technical Working Groups at their stakeholder meetings and providing technical assistance with the development of baseline data collection tools and training at health facilities throughout the country.
Baseline data collection has begun in 60 health facilities in Ghana and the data will be used to guide strategies for addressing the high surgical burden throughout the country.