In the latest effort by Smile Cambodia, an NGO dedicated to providing surgery and ongoing care for individuals affected by cleft lip and cleft palate in resource-limited environments, the Kampot Provincial Referral Hospital emerges as a beacon of hope for families navigating the challenges of these conditions.

Inside the hospital’s walls, a narrative of resilience and transformation unfolds, visible in the faces of the children whose lives are being changed, one surgery at a time.

The recovery room is a blend of emotions. The air, often filled with the cries of babies fresh from surgery, echoes their present discomfort and anticipates their future smiles. Meanwhile, others rest peacefully, their tranquil breathing offering solace to anxious parents amid their journey.

This post-surgery scene serves as a poignant reminder to the medical team and volunteers – a reminder of the pain accompanying healing and the silence expressing the relief that ensues.

Smile Cambodia recently concluded a successful surgical mission in Kampot province from December 4 to 6, completing more than three dozen surgeries for patients with cleft lip and palate.

“I’m thrilled to share that we carried out 40 surgeries during our three-day surgical mission in Kampot. The mission was a great success, with all surgeries going smoothly. Both our Japanese and local volunteers were delighted with the response from cleft lip and palate patients in Kampot and nearby provinces,” says Chan Kok Choy, the vice-chair of Smile Cambodia.

In a heartwarming collaboration, the NGO teamed up with generous donors and medical volunteers from Japan and Cambodia for their life-changing mission. Committed to aiding underprivileged children, the organisation expresses gratitude to all volunteers for their invaluable contributions.

Life-altering surgeries transform children’s futures

Meet Khon Sineng, 38, and his wife At Sina, 35, who journeyed with their 5-month-old daughter born with a cleft lip and palate. They are part of a rising group of parents, informed through a mobile phone announcement, seeking assistance from Smile Cambodia’s missions. 

Beyond communication, the instant messaging app Telegram serves as a lifeline, linking those in need to the prospect of a cure.

“After the surgery and a night in the hospital, we can bring our daughter home and return for follow-up treatment a week later. However, due to the considerable distance to our home, we are currently staying with relatives in Phnom Penh,” shares the family, originally from Anlong Veng district in the remote northwestern province of Oddar Meanchey, which shares its border with Thailand. 

Heng Chivoan

They express their trust in the medical team’s skill, highlighting the precision and cleanliness of the free-of-charge surgery. 

Ny Manyes shares a similar journey, as her 2-year-old daughter undergoes her third surgery, bringing them closer to normalcy and further from the condition that has intimately touched their lives. The young girl started surgeries in 2021 and, after this one, will need to wait seven years before the fourth operation.

“After the third operation, we will wait another seven years before proceeding with the fourth. This surgery not only enhances my daughter’s appearance but also serves as an inspiration for other children,” she tells The Post.

Dek Chanthou’s 4-month-old son is the latest in her family facing this condition, a legacy passed down from his father. Her story brings renewed hope as she discovers that Smile Cambodia’s support extends to adults, providing her husband an opportunity to address a previous surgery that wasn’t successful.

In these narratives, a common thread emerges – one of continuity and legacy. It speaks of conditions handed down through generations and interventions that present a chance to break the cycle. 

Srey Chiva, a 24-year-old mother from Kampot province’s Angkor Chey district, shares the cleft condition touching three generations of her family. Her story goes beyond the personal, reflecting a national issue that demands attention and action.

“The same issue was in my grandfather, then in me, and now my son. I don’t know precisely what the problem is, perhaps it’s hereditary,” she shares with The Post.

Kok Choy acknowledges that genetics play a role in causing cleft conditions in children, but there are various other factors, such as exposure to certain chemicals. He points out that Vietnam has a significant number of cleft cases, possibly linked to chemical exposure during the war affecting multiple generations.

History of Smile Cambodia 

Kok Choy, now 63, left a lasting impact on Cambodia’s banking sector, during his tenure as the general manager and executive director at Vattanac Bank. With a career spanning over 30 years, he began at Public Bank in Malaysia, later expanding his influence to Vietnam and Cambodia.

Smile Cambodia executive director Chan Kok Choy with a mother and child at Kampot Provincial Referral Hospital on December 2.Heng Chivoan

During his time in Vietnam, Choy was deeply moved by the challenges faced by individuals with cleft conditions. This heartfelt experience motivated him to take personal initiative, generously funding treatments for 10 individuals. His contributions, ranging from $1,000 to $2,000 per child, enabled them to undergo crucial surgical operations in Vietnam, transforming their lives.

“Back in 2002, when I arrived in Cambodia, the founder of Operation Smile USA reached out to me during a mission here and asked if I would consider starting Smile Cambodia. Facing a challenge that no one else wanted to take on, I decided to step up and lead the NGO as vice-chair,” Choy tells The Post.

Transitioning from a successful banking career to founding Smile Cambodia reflects his dedication to social causes and community development. His commitment shines through his involvement with Smile Cambodia, showcasing his devotion to community well-being and healthcare support. 

As a licensed NGO established under a 2015 memorandum of understanding (MoU) with the Ministry of Health, Smile Cambodia partners with the Khmer Soviet Friendship Hospital to conduct monthly surgeries at the Smile Centre, improving healthcare accessibility for affected children.

“As of December 2023, Smile Cambodia have provided almost 6,000 free surgeries,” Choy tells The Post.

Early intervention is crucial 

In an operating room, with two beds, a team of Japanese doctors performs surgery on a small baby. Simultaneously, Cambodian counterparts focus on operating on the inner lip of a 1-year-old, each diligently completing their tasks.

One doctor uses a pump device to extract water from the baby’s mouth, while two others carry scissors and sewing thread, initiating the process of sewing the baby’s inner palate. The duration of this procedure typically ranges from one to two hours, depending on the child’s specific condition.

Tea Sok Leng, from Calmette Hospital, shares his surgical insight with The Post.

“Little ones can undergo surgery on the inner palate between one and two years of age,” he says.

“At this stage, children start learning to speak, and surgery during this age can help them speak clearly as they grow older,” he says.

The surgical team comprises Nou Sarom, head of aesthetic surgery at Preah Ket Mealea Hospital, Ros Sok Heang from Khmer-Soviet Friendship Hospital, Oum Seiha from Preah Ket Mealea Hospital and a group of doctors from the National Paediatric Hospital – all located in Phnom Penh. 

As a founding member of Smile Asia – a global alliance of independent charities working together to treat facial deformities – Smile Cambodia actively participates in addressing cleft lip and palate. Smile Asia has conducted surgeries in 20 countries, successfully performing over 75,000 procedures.

Kok Choy extends his appeal to parents of children with cleft conditions, encouraging them to seek treatment for their little ones as early as 3 months old. Early intervention plays a pivotal role, significantly enhancing the prospects for these children to lead normal lives, positively impacting their appearance and vocal abilities.

“Treating cleft conditions at a young age can greatly improve outcomes, enhancing the child’s quality of life as they grow,” he says.

Throughout his two-decade dedication to addressing these conditions, Kok Choy has discovered profound satisfaction and encouragement in his work.

“You know if you can just do an operation, you change a person’s life. You give them a new lease of life. So for me, this is very satisfying,” he says.

His dedication centres on addressing cleft lip, palate and other facial deformities, motivated by the profound satisfaction of creating a substantial impact in the lives of patients. He appreciates the collaboration of volunteers, colleagues, hospitals and government support, all playing a part in the fulfilment he gains from this work.

Kok Choy shares his hopes for Smile Cambodia’s future collaborations and the prospect of extending their surgical missions. He mentions the backing from their chairperson Pich Chanmony – the wife of Prime Minister Hun Manet – and the potential partnership with the Samdech Techo Voluntary Youth Doctor Association (TYDA) which Chanmony chairs, focusing on dental and medical treatment.

“So, from my standpoint, I truly hope we can achieve more. If we have more patients, I can rally more doctors from overseas. I’ve received a commitment from my Smile Asia colleague. If there are 200 or 300 patients, we can undertake a significant initiative,” he says.