Last week, between March 15 and 20, a team of 39 medical professionals from 13 different countries visited Cambodia to give children the gift of a smile – literally. For the charity Operation Smile Cambodia foreign doctors and trained nurses consultated 100 Cambodian children suffering from cleft lips and cleft palates, and other facial deformities. Around 65 of the young patients received plastic surgery, and postoperative medical treatment and therapy.
Since 2002 the NGO has been performing free treatments in Cambodia and made a great contribution to reducing the prevalence of cleft palates in the Kingdom and educating the population to know that the condition is treatable.
This year marks the thirteenth year that Operation Smile has been active in Cambodia. During that time Operation Smile has completed more than 7,000 free health screenings and treated more than 3,600 patients. In 2014, Operation Smile Cambodia opened the Smile Center to offer year round services such as patient screening and speech therapy.
Post Plus took the opportunity to speak with Jay McCord, country manager of Operation Smile, and reflect upon 13 successful years of improving people’s lives.
WHAT EXACTLY IS OPERATION SMILE?
Operation Smile is an international children's medical charity that performs safe, effective cleft lip and cleft palate surgery, and delivers postoperative and ongoing medical therapies to children in need. Every three minutes a child is born with a cleft somewhere in the world. A child with a cleft has twice the odds of dying before their first birthday. Children with cleft conditions who survive may have difficulty eating, speaking, hearing or breathing properly. In some places, they are shunned and rejected. And in too many cases, their parents can't afford the surgeries they need to live a productive life.
ARE CLEFT LIPS A SPECIFICALLY CAMBODIAN PROBLEM?
Operation Smile began in 1982 after co-founders Dr William Magee and Ms Kathy Magee helped an international team treat children in the Philippines and realised that cleft lips and cleft palates were a global problem. The fact is that cleft lips and palates happen in every country of the world and it’s not just a Cambodian problem or a poverty problem.
HOW DO YOU TACKLE THE PROBLEM IN CAMBODIA?
Operation Smile Cambodia’s objectives are twofold: first and foremost treat patients with cleft lips and cleft palates. Second is to strengthen the local medical professionals. In addition to conducting several missions annually since 2002, Operation Smile Cambodia has provided training to surgeons, anesthesiologists, pediatricians, biomedical engineers, and nurses. Operation Smile Cambodia is proud to know that when we are not undergoing a mission, that those volunteers are able to treat their own patients with a higher quality of care.
WHAT CHALLENGES DO YOU FACE IN TREATING PATIENTS IN CAMBODIA?
The biggest challenge is finding those hard-to-reach patients. They live far away from the city, have no water, electricity, TV or radio. No one cares about them and that is why we want to find them. We need to let all people in Cambodia know that cleft lips are treatable and that we are here to help. The more people are aware of this the more people will share this information. Knowing that the condition is treatable can save the lives of babies who may be abandoned or become malnourished.
WHAT ARE THE RESULTS FROM INFORMING PEOPLE?
The most impressive fact is that Operation Smile Cambodia is one of seven countries targeted for eradication of cleft lips and palates among the 60 countries Operation Smile operates in. This means that we can be the first country to treat the backlog of cleft patients and have only newborn babies to treat. For me this would be a proud moment in Cambodia’s health care system since most of the local teams are the ones dedicated to the monthly operations of clefts. This will allow our Cambodian doctors and nurses to help other countries treat their cleft problems.
PLEASE DESCRIBE YOUR ORGANISATION’S SUCCESS OVER THE LAST 13 YEARS IN CAMBODIA.
Operation Smile has been successful in two ways: treating patients with cleft lips and palates and other facial deformities, as well as helping to strengthen the medical volunteers that we use. Each volunteer takes their education and experience back to their hospitals and clinics and helps them become better practitioners.