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The tears that put smiles on two lakh lips

- Cranofacial surgeon and founder of Operation Smile Inc recalls how it all began

Guwahati, Feb. 22: A connect that an American couple had with patients with facial deformities in the Philippines and the regret of being able to treat only 30 of the 300-odd locals in the Southeast Asian island nation was how Operation Smile originated. Today, it can take credit for restoring 2 lakh smiles across the globe.

“We had gone to Naga City in the Philippines in 1982 to treat these patients. But we could treat only about 30. My wife Kathleen, who has a degree in nursing, had accompanied me on the trip. The connect that we had with the local people was unbelievable, but there was a backlog of over 200. I remember the tears of the mother of a girl who had a hole beneath her nose when we had to leave for the US. She had a basket with some bananas for us, and we, too, had tears rolling down our cheeks. After we returned to Norfolk, Virginia, we decided to do something more for the people of Naga City. That was how this mission originated. Today, we have operated on 2,00,000 children around the world free of cost,” William P. Magee Jr, founder of Operation Smile Inc., told The Telegraph here today.

Magee, a plastic and craniofacial surgeon, is on his second visit to the city. Operation Smile — a non-profit medical service organisation — currently has missions across 70 countries.

“In India, we launched the project in 2002. In Assam, we started the process of talks with the government in 2007. Two years later, a memorandum of understanding was signed with the Assam government and I am grateful to chief minister Tarun Gogoi and health minister Himanta Biswa Sarma for their co-operation in making the public-private partnership happen. Ranjit Barthakur, who is now the chairman of Operation Smile India, was instrumental in initiating the project,” he said.

Today, Operation Smile has 13 cleft care centres in the world. The Operation Smile Comprehensive Cleft Care Centre set up at Mahendra Mohan Choudhury Hospital here in 2009 ranks among the best in the world, Magee said.

Asked the status of Operation Smile in Assam, Magee said, “When we started the project in the state, we had over 30,000 patients with facial deformities. So far, we have successfully operated upon 5,000 patients. So there is a backlog of over 20,000 patients. We have a challenge on our hands but at least we have set up a model,” he said.

For a mega project such as this, funds are a priority. “We had approached Ratan Tata who provided five million dollars while the Assam government sanctioned another five million. Financial help also came from Bupa Trust,” the doctor said.

On trained doctors in the state, the surgeon said, “While foreign doctors visit the centre periodically, we have 10 trained doctors here. The centre has a medical team of 60,” he said.

About any particular smile that he will always treasure, Magee said: “Among many, we have Nur, a 10-year-old boy from Dhubri district, who was operated on a year back in the US. The boy has had to live with the deformity since birth. But his life changed after we performed the operation. He can now smile and face life with confidence. Then, there is another girl who touches my heart.”

On how important is was for him to enhance a smile, the doctor said: “The very feeling of being able to not just smile, but come out of a hidden world, is what makes a successful surgery special. Nothing gives more satisfaction than to see a smile on one who couldn’t before those 45 minutes — the time needed for the surgery.”


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