Shyam’s story

Parents Rakhi and Milton were shocked when their son Shyam was born with a cleft lip. During her pregnancy Rakhi had been to hospital for routine scans but none had detected Shyam’s cleft. Rakhi worried what the future held for her son and if he would be teased or bullied because he looked different.

A doctor at the hospital in Durgapur, India, mistakenly told them that Shyam would have to wait until he was five for surgery. And, because Shyam was feeding well and otherwise heathy, the family accepted the doctor’s advice and returned home to their village.

Later, a different doctor said that Shyam could have his cleft repair surgery much sooner and didn’t need to wait – but Rakhi and Milton didn’t feel able to go against the word of the first doctor and feared that earlier surgery could be harmful to their son.

Thankfully, Shyam didn’t suffer health complications related to his cleft lip and grew into a heathy, energetic toddler. The family were fortunate that in their community there was no malice towards Shyam’s cleft, only curiosity – people thought it may have been caused by an eclipse.

Everything changed when another local doctor told them about Operation Smile and the forthcoming patient recruitment programme in Murarai. Rakhi and Milton took Shyam and were encouraged to see other children who’d previously had surgery, returning to register for follow-up care. Here they also learned that cleft conditions are a common medical condition and not the result of supernatural causes.

Shyam was now three years old, and starting to ask his parents questions about why his lip was different, so his life-changing surgery had come just in time. Now those early memories of feeling different will quickly fade and Shyam can enjoy his new smile and a much brighter future.

Behind a smile

Comprehensive care before and after surgery

Babies with cleft conditions are nine times more likely to die within their first year of life. It’s a staggering figure that illustrates why comprehensive care is so vital, both before and beyond that first surgery.

From ongoing nutritional support, palate repair surgery and speech therapy, to dentistry and orthodontic care – our medical volunteers and specialists walk alongside patients every step of their journey, no matter how long it takes.

1. Ongoing nutritional support

2. Cleft palate surgery

3. Speech therapy – giving children a voice

4. Dentistry

5. Orthodontics

6. Speech surgery

Find out more about our patients’ journey from first surgery and beyond.

Your wonderful support at work

We recently caught up with three patients who previously had their lifechanging surgery in 2015, in Ho, Ghana. Eight years after surgery, we were delighted to see the long-term impact of the treatment and care they received from Operation Smile.


Shine is a bright, happy 7-year-old. She’s often to be heard singing her favourite French song while drawing or taking care of her cats. Her mum, Patience, is so proud of her daughter, she said Shine’s one of the top students in her class and she loves learning languages. Shine’s future is now bright and hopeful, in stark contrast to how it was before surgery.

When Shine was born, Patience was really worried about her daughter’s future. Shine was born with a cleft lip and palate in a village on the outskirts of Accra. Patience immediately experienced the stigma surrounding people with cleft, as suddenly her neighbours didn’t even want to be near her. Patience was referred to the Korle Bu Teaching Hospital in Accra, where she learnt about Operation Smile and was excited to hear about the surgical programme in Ho. Shine was only 7 months old when she received her life-changing surgery. Since then, their lives have been transformed and the days of suffering and stigma are behind them.


Samuel, before surgery. Photo: Zute Lightfoot.

Samuel’s big smile hides a past of bullying, teasing and loneliness. Samuel lived for 18 years with an unrepaired cleft lip. He spent years alone. Isolated and with no confidence, he lost hope in the future.

When he arrived at the surgical programme back in 2015, he felt huge relief. For the first time, he realised he was not the only one with a cleft. After hearing the news that he was on the surgical schedule, Samuel couldn’t contain his excitement. He knew his life would be changed forever after surgery.

Eight years since surgery and Samuel is a different person. He’s confident and happy, he’s finished school and is now married, with a son. Today Samuel loves going out and meeting people – whenever sees anyone with an untreated cleft, he shares his story and introduces them to Operation Smile, so their lives can also be transformed.


When Aliwu saw a photo of a baby with a cleft lip, she couldn’t believe she was that same little girl. Aliwu was born with a cleft lip and palate, just like her mum, and received free, safe surgery from Operation Smile when she was only one. As a result of her timely surgery, Aliwu has never suffered the painful bullying and rejection her mother Fadila went through growing up.

When Fadila arrived at Ho with Aliwu, she remembers that for the first time she felt she was not alone and that Operation Smile could really help her daughter. Surgery has brought so much confidence to Fadila, as she realises now that after Aliwu’s cleft has been repaired, her daughter will be able to go to school and enjoy her life, free from bullying and teasing.

Volunteer focus

Dr Das touched by volunteering experience

Dentistry is a hugely important part of the comprehensive care we provide. Children born with a cleft lip or cleft palate often face a number of oral heath challenges which is why volunteer dentists like Dr. Soumalya Das are such a vital part of the Operation Smile team.

Soumalya describes his experience of volunteering as ‘heart touching’. This sense of emotional fulfillment is something he’d always searched for prior to becoming a volunteer. Soumalya works at the Operation Smile Cleft Care Centre in Durgapur, India and loved the experience of volunteering so much that in one year he took part in four Operation Smile surgical programmes in addition to his hectic day job.

Dr Das working at the Durgapur centre

The main reason why I love Operation Smile is because they treat every patient like family. From the first day when I went to a surgical programme I watched them working with the patients and the families. I saw the way they engage with the patients. I really loved it because in that way you can make a strong bond with the patient which helps with their long-term treatment.

Dr. Soumalya Das

In India, like many parts of the world, there’s still a stigma surrounding cleft conditions. Children with cleft often have missing teeth, extra teeth or malformed teeth so dental treatment helps improve a child’s confidence and increase their chances of being fully accepted in society after surgery.

“Without the aesthetic treatment, I don’t think society is accepting anybody. There’s a stigma there. We need to accept that we are all human, those things are real. A little help from us gives a better aesthetic result.” Soumalya says

Safer, pain free treatment for Malawians thanks to Jonty

Volunteer anaesthetist Jonty has recently returned from a three-month placement in Malawi at The Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital in Blantyre. He’s been working with local teams to improve training standards, as well as devising a new nurse-led protocol to improve pain relief for children at the hospital’s burns unit.

Jonty qualified as an anaesthetist two years ago, and now works at Ipswich hospital, but during that time he’s spent a total of six months in Malawi with Operation Smile. He tells us more about his time in Malawi:

Dr Jonty providing anaesthesia to a patient during the Mzuzu surgical programme

Each morning at handover there were usually 40 to 50 staff – most were trainees or relatively junior. We discussed all the cases for the day, what was complex, what might need additional support (usually from me) and any plans we had. The staff would go into their teams, and I’d discuss any perceived complications. We then had some impromptu or formal training on subjects such as ultrasound machines or basic airway skills.

Friday was the official teaching day, when we had a group of anaesthetic registrar trainees who were due to have exams in September. Their exams are based on those I was required to do in the UK. These were my main duties along with covering intensive care, but it was really on-the-job training, support and seizing learning opportunities as they arose.

Smile Heroes in action

Triple crown for Smile Hero Scott

Scott Jenkins, Johnson and Johnson employee and ultra marathon runner has just become the first Briton ever to complete America’s ‘Triple Crown of 200s’, which comprises no fewer than three 200 mile ultramarathons. As if the distance alone wasn’t enough, each race takes place in extreme heat or freezing temperatures.

Scott fits in his extreme hobby around working, and runs multiple ultramarathons every year in an effort to raise money for Operation Smile. Since 2015 he has raised over £16,000, bringing smiles to more than 110 children and their families all over the world.

Ultramarathons require an incredible amount of fitness and mental strength and when the going gets really tough, Scott tells us: “I remind myself I’m doing this to support Operation Smile, and if I can muster through this, hopefully we can raise a couple of extra donations. The third night of the last race was so tough, every step of that 200-mile race was so painful. But when I got to the end, I saw somebody had donated $1,000 and I was nearly in tears, because it makes it all worthwhile.”

Photo: Sarah Attar (Instagram @sarahattar)

Student Smile Heroes in action

We recently caught up with 17-year-old Smile Hero Charlie Kirkwood. Charlie’s been fundraising for Operation Smile since 2016 and is president of the Operation Smile fundraising club at Marlborough College where he’s currently studying.

A budding photographer, and member of the Operation Smile student programme, Charlie has recently returned from a surgical programme in Colombia – he told us:

It was the first international volunteer experience of my life and it has opened my eyes to the impact which young volunteers, doctors and philanthropy can bring to the world. In Colombia, 49 patients had their life changing cleft lip and cleft palate surgeries, and I was fortunate to be able to observe the surgeries up close in real time! It was awe-inspiring to watch the surgeons and medical teams literally change the patients’ lives right before my eyes. I was grateful to know the money that I had raised helped to make that moment possible!

Charlie’s older siblings Maddy and Jack have both been actively involved in Operation Smile fundraising too: “I was 10 when my older sister Maddy went on her medical mission to the Philippines. In 2018, my older brother Jack went on his mission to Bolivia. My sister Emma raised a record amount at Marlborough for surgeries and I am grateful for all my siblings’ support to me along the way. Some of the fundraisers we have done are photo booths, dodgeball tournaments, movie nights, sponsored dances and bake sales. It really is true that no donation is too big or small!”

Thanks to Charlie, Marlborough College, and all our amazing student volunteers!

Smile heroes like you

So many ways to make a difference

It’s thanks to your support we can continue to provide life-changing surgery and cleft care to all those who need it around the world.

Our fabulous fundraisers have come up with countless ways to raise money and help transform the lives of thousands of children, with sponsored walks and runs to bake sales and costume parties – we’re always amazed by your efforts and creativity!

And, donations from loyal supporters like you, have given happier, healthier, futures to children all around the world. But did you know there are even more ways you can support our work?

Payroll Giving makes payday even better with the knowledge you’re helping children with cleft conditions taxfree, every month. You can even donate your shares!

Did you also know that your old car can be donated to charity thanks to one of our charity partners Car Take Back and their Charity Car scheme?

The Rotary Club of Swindon North & Thamesdown holding a pub quiz, raising funds for Operation Smile

Leaving a gift in your will can transform a child’s life

Did you know that legacy gifts from kind supporters help fund every aspect of our work? From nutritional support, dentistry, orthodontics and speech therapy, to the life-changing surgery that gives new smiles and new lives to children all over the world.

Did you also know you can have your will written for free in as little as 30 minutes?

Using our free will writing service means you can take care of your loved ones, and leave a lasting legacy for children with cleft conditions all over the world!

A young girl, wearing a butterfly hoodie, holds a picture of herself as a baby before her cleft surgery.
Rania, Morocco

Our achievements

Thanks to our generous donors and supporters, during the previous financial year we achieved so much!


short-term surgical and dental programmes


patients received surgical care


patients received comprehensive care services


countries with programmes


hospital partners


care centres


healthcare workers trained

Updates from around the world

Speech therapists provide post-surgical care workshops for families

Operation Smile Paraguay has a wonderful team of speech therapists, committed to providing the highest quality care for our patients.

During surgical programmes our speech therapists run workshops about postsurgical care for parents and family members of patients who will receive surgery the following day. Teaching games and lectures help them to understand what food patients can and can’t eat after surgery and highlight the importance of cleanliness and hygiene post-surgery.

Brian before receiving his life-changing surgery

We’re training the trainers!

Last September Operation Smile hosted its first ever ‘Sub-Saharan Africa Patient Management and Community Health Initiatives Regional Workshop’ in Antananarivo, Madagascar.

Representatives included patient and programme coordinators from all nine Sub-Saharan African countries that we work in, from the global comprehensive care team and a long-term clinical nurse volunteer from the UK.

This training aimed to streamline processes and systems, strengthen local programmes and provide opportunity for regional collaboration and exchanges. Those in attendance also participated in workshops and hands-on training in post-operative care at the patient village following the Madagascan surgical programme.

Clement and Edward, Patient Coordinators from Ghana, during the training

Women in medicine: research summary

Operation Smile’s research team took part in all four Women in Medicine surgical programmes in 2022.

Our Global Surgery Fellows led three distinct projects: patient satisfaction and experience, provider satisfaction and experience, and provider interviews.

Key takeaways from the research were that mothers in Morocco were significantly more likely to prefer female medical staff after the programme, compared to the other three countries. However at least 50% of mothers in all sites reported preferring female providers.

This programme also increased the confidence of at least 85% (Philippines) to 98% (Morocco) of parents’ confidence in the ability of all-women teams to deliver quality care.

Finally, understanding was the most common reason cited for an increased preference for seeing more women represented in more roles, followed by patience, and communication.

Nurse Linda James interacting with a patient and her mother

Operation Smile at the United Nations General Assembly

Last September, Operation Smile took part in the 78th session of the United Nations General Assembly. Leaders from more than 100 countries emphasised the need for global collaboration specifically as it pertains to conflicts and climate change.

Operation Smile, Children’s Heart Link, Global ARCH, and Miracle Feet organised a side event on United Nations grounds. This event, ‘Congenital Conditions and Universal Health: A Global Dialogue,’ was sponsored by the Permanent Mission of Malaysia to the United Nations and the Ministry of Health Malaysia, and brought together policymakers, advocates, and patient advocates to discuss the links between congenital conditions, universal healthcare, and the sustainable development goals. Representing Operation Smile and making compelling contributions were Miss Laura Alvarez, an Operation Smile Student Programmes leader and cleft lip & palate patient advocate, and Dr. Gaurav Deshpande, Associate Vice-President Medical Oversight and Safety at Operation Smile.

How you can help change lives

A donation of any amount can make such a difference to children and adults living with untreated cleft conditions.