Driven to Lead: Q&A with Abhishek Sengupta

Abhishek Sengupta, Operation Smile India’s executive director and regional director for India, Russia and Italy. Photo: Lorenzo Monacelli.

Our promise of improving health and dignity during the COVID-19 pandemic endures. We’re helping frontline health workers stay safe, nourished and empowered to better serve their patients by providing life-saving supplies and equipment, as well as remote training to bolster their response. We’re also providing nutritional assistance, hygiene kits and virtual health services to support people and their health needs so they can thrive. If you can, when you can, help us keep our promise to care for children and create hope for tomorrow.

First beginning his journey as a translator during medical missions, Abhishek Sengupta has continuously climbed the ranks within Operation Smile, holding many roles including programme coordinator, programme manager and regional programme manager.

Today, he uses his knowledge and expertise of the organisation to execute the role of executive director for Operation Smile India and the regional director in India, Russia and Italy.

“I grew up in a very small town where, since you were a kid, you were told that you have to either be a doctor or an engineer or a lawyer,” Abhishek said. “What Operation Smile exposed me to is that you can help people, and that can be a career.”

Pausing all medical programmes in India was an incredibly difficult decision, especially after having just wrapped a successful mission in Durgapur, but Abhishek knew that he needed to do everything in his power to protect his team, his patients and his country.

“For us, the biggest point of discussion that we had at that point of time was, one, patient safety and, second, volunteer safety,” he said. “That is what we championed in Operation Smile, and that is something that we would never compromise.”

We recently connected with Abhishek to hear more about his journey with Operation Smile and how his team in India strives to overcome COVID-19 challenges in the communities where they work.

Abhishek Sengupta, then the lead programme coordinator for Operation Smile India, poses with the translating team in Nagaon during a 2010 medical mission. Photo: Kieran Harnett.

Q: When did your involvement with Operation Smile begin?

A: “I actually started with Operation Smile as a student volunteer way back in 2005. That’s when I was getting my bachelor’s degree in English literature. Operation Smile had been working in India for just one year before that. They were doing a mission, looking for translators because, as you know, on a mission, the international volunteers need translators to communicate with local staff as well as patients. We took a van because our Operation Smile team that had sent a van for all the translators, and there were around 25 of us. There were like more than thousand people there. We got out and then we realised these are our patients. That day, we screened more than 600 patients. We went at 7 a.m. and came back to our dorm rooms at around 10 at night. We were exhausted, but we loved it.

“I think that’s when it clicked. Since then, I volunteered for a few more missions. We were doing missions in Bolpur, we’re doing missions in Deesa. Whenever they would come back to Bolpur for a mission, I’d help with patient recruitment, I’d help with some of the logistics with the hotel, lunch, dinner, as well as some of the hospital relationships. I would handle all that. That’s how it started. Believe it or not, the reason I was getting a bachelor’s in English literature was because I wanted to be a journalist. But then Operation Smile happened. Since then, I’ve been working in the development sector. After my graduation, I was offered a job as a programme coordinator in India, which I readily took. I love doing what I do. It’s been an amazing journey.”

Q: What was it specifically that drew you in to working with Operation Smile India?

A: “I think what really inspired me was the idea of helping people. I grew up in a very small town where, since you were a kid, you were told that you have to either be a doctor or an engineer or a lawyer. When I decided to be a journalist, that was actually going off the track. What Operation Smile exposed me to is that you can help people, and that can be a career. This was something that I didn’t know. That was inspirational. In my job right when I was a programme coordinator, I used to travel to rural India, I used to travel to small villages, meet patients, meet their families. At the same time, the next day, I would be sitting in an office in Bombay and meeting a corporate donor.

“That’s the interesting part, you meet policymakers, you meet health ministers, you meet health secretaries. The entire spectrum of people and the job is very interesting, it’s very dynamic. Every day is different. I’ve done over 100 missions in my life, and I still learn from each and every mission because it’s not the same. I think one is the element of dynamism with the job. The second, you get all that while you’re making a difference in someone’s life. I think you really don’t need anything more than that to choose, I think it was an obvious choice.”

During Operation Smile India's February 2020 medical mission in Durgapur, 130 patients like Shahid received life-changing care. Photo: Lorenzo Monacelli.

Q: What shocked you the most about the need for cleft surgery in India?

A: “I think when I started with Operation Smile, we were pretty much the only charity in India doing providing free surgery to children with cleft lip and palate. I had never seen a child with a cleft in my life. Even today, when I walk on the streets, I don’t see a child with a cleft lip and palate. Now imagine, while this is the reality, you end up on a mission or you come to an Operation Smile centre and you see hundreds, sometimes thousands of kids with cleft lip and palate. What that means is that there is something wrong. Why do we not see these kids in regular life?

“I started to engage with patients and patients’ families, hear their stories. Once you hear these stories, you just understand. How these kids are shunned away, and then you hear stories about the taboo and the superstitions that are associated with cleft. Something needs to be done about it. I think that’s what’s very critical, and that’s what I think people like us want to do and we have dedicated ourselves to doing and same with Operation Smile, I think that is what we champion, and that is what we want to continue doing.”

Photo: Lorenzo Monacelli.

Q: Although we’ve had to postpone many surgical missions due to COVID-19, could you speak a little bit about what your team has done to provide food and relief items to families and migrant workers in India?

A:We are very proud of what we have done. Of course, we believe that it is our responsibility to stand beside communities even in times of hardship, especially in times of hardship. Once we shut down our programmes, we realised that this is going to stay and our teams were there and we wanted to help people. One way was to collaborate with hospitals and provide them with PPE, get our volunteers to help supporting as frontline workers in COVID wards and all of that, but then we realised that there were already people doing that. Plus, at that point of time, there was a huge shortage of PPE, so even for us to buy, it was difficult.

“Then we realised that because of the lockdown, there was another challenge. India has more than 4.5 million migrant workers. These are people who come from small villages to smaller towns or bigger cities in search of jobs. They would work at restaurants, pubs, bars, factories, small businesses. Most of them are daily wage earners. Depending on the number of hours they worked a day, they would get paid at the end of the day. That’s how they sustain. What happens is these factories, these restaurants, these businesses where they work, that’s where they stay. At night, they would sleep at the restaurant once it’s closed down. Because of the lockdown, suddenly all these businesses were shut. Suddenly, none of these people were being paid. They lost their jobs overnight. Most of them also didn’t have a place to stay because they were still living in the place where they work, or even if they were paying rent in a big city, once their daily income is gone, they were not able to pay that rent. There were no trains to go back home. There were no buses. You would see migrant workers walk for seven days, 12 days, 14 days on the highways trying to go back home because there were no transport.

“The other problem that happened is because these are people who pretty much live on a day-to-day basis, they don’t have any savings. Once they lost their jobs, there were a huge number of people who were living hungry. They didn’t have money to have two meals a day, leave aside three meals a day. We saw this as a problem, and we decided that that is a space we want to work in.

“We picked up two cities where we run centres. We started giving out food supplies. Overall, in about four weeks, we were able to support about 2,500 families, providing them food supplies. In each packet, there would be rice, potatoes, lentils or cooking oil, enough for about 20 days for each family. Then, of course, we also gave some hygiene kits, which is masks, sanitisers, soaps, buckets and mugs, because we felt that is important in these times. We hope that, socially, as we accept this as a new reality, I think people’s health-seeking behaviours are also influenced. Those are some challenges that, as a country, we can overcome.”

Help us keep our promise to patients living in India amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Your support today means we can continue to help them through these uncertain times and provide them with the surgery they deserve when it’s safe to resume our work around the world.

Photo: Lorenzo Monacelli.

Going the extra Miles for Smiles: Madagascar nutrition programme

Held by his mother, Patricia, 14-month-old Icardi sips formula from a bottle. Photo: Henitsoa Rafalia.

Our promise of improving health and dignity during the COVID-19 pandemic endures. We’re helping frontline health workers stay safe, nourished and empowered to better serve their patients by providing life-saving supplies and equipment, as well as remote training to bolster their response. We’re also providing nutritional assistance, hygiene kits and virtual health services to support people and their health needs so they can thrive. If you can, when you can, help us keep our promise to care for children and create hope for tomorrow.

Vololona leads a team of volunteers through a crowded neighbourhood, passing worn houses before stopping to knock on a metal door.

After a moment’s pause, Patricia appears holding her son, Icardi, who’s feeding from a bottle.

With relief in her voice, she says to the volunteers, “We’re so glad to see you. This is one of the last bottles we can prepare with the baby’s formula left.”

Amid the lockdowns and restrictions, Patricia and Vololona, Icardi’s grandmother, have tried to support their family.

Vololona sells small supplies to schools and churches while Patricia makes deliveries of steels rods in the community.

But with orders not coming in, and schools and churches closed, they’ve struggled to make ends meet.

“Baby formula is expensive, but we’ve somehow always managed to buy it, since Icardi needs it to grow,” Vololona explains. “But since the lockdown, we’ve not been able to put money aside to buy formula.”

Photo: Henitsoa Rafalia.

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, this has become the reality for many patients and their families around the world as they attempt to provide for their loved ones amid country-wide lockdowns and restrictions.

With the inception of the Extra S’Miles nutrition programme, our local teams in Madagascar are quite literally going the extra mile for families with hopes of minimising the hardships caused by the pandemic.

“Shortly after the state of health emergency was declared and lockdown measures were put in place, our patients became extremely vulnerable,” said Dr. Howard Niarison, Extra S’Miles Programme Coordinator. “We had to take action, even if that meant braving the virus and the miles that separate them from us.”

Photo: Henitsoa Rafalia.

The programme not only helps patients continue their nutrition treatment prescribed by medical volunteers prior to the pandemic, but also assist families living in regions where lockdown measures have made it nearly impossible to meet basic nutritional needs.

Malnutrition remains one of the most significant obstacles to receiving care due to an increased risk of complications during surgery. Without timely medical intervention, patients like Icardi can face major health issues as they are more vulnerable to illness, malnutrition and even death.

The Extra S’Miles team spanned nearly two thousand miles, travelling across the country of Madagascar to deliver nutritional packs to patients living in the regions hit hardest by the virus.

Within the packs provided to families are necessary supplies and hygiene products including food, soap, washable masks, hand sanitiser, ready-to-use therapeutic food (RUTF) and more.

Member of the Operation Smile Madagascar's Extra S'Miles nutrition programme team giving ready-to-use therapeutic food (RUTF) to a patient. Photo: Henitsoa Rafalia.

In addition to the nutritional packs, the Extra S’Miles programme enabled the team to check-in on the health of patients, reassure families that Operation Smile remained devoted to their well-being despite the cancellations of medical missions and provide counsel advice on how to remain healthy until the resumption of care.

Photo: Henitsoa Rafalia.

“It’s during difficult times that you know who your real friends are,” said José Augustin, patient coordinator for Operation Smile in Madagascar. “This health crisis is certainly a difficult time for our patients. Because we care for them, we’ll reach out to them since they can’t come to us.”

More than 530 families received the Extra S’Miles nutritional packs thanks to the dedicated team members who refused to let the pandemic prevent them from seeing smiles on the faces of patients in need.

Operation Smile Madagascar patient Coordinator Jose Augustin shares a smile with a patient. Photo: Henitsoa Rafalia.

With tears in her eyes, Patricia happily accepts the nutritional pack and the six cans of baby formula the Extra S’Miles team offers her.

Raising Icardi has been a long and difficult journey for Patricia and Vololona.

Despite their unconditional love for both Icardi and his older sister, they’ve faced seemingly insurmountable barriers in their attempts to care for a child living with a cleft condition.

Icardi’s father left shortly after his premature birth, unable to handle the stress of a baby born with cleft lip.

Smile Photo: Henitsoa Rafalia.

Many families like Icardi’s joined Operation Smile Madagascar’s nutrition programme with the hope of a new beginning.

The programme provides patients and families with educational support, ongoing health assessments and RUTF, a nutritive peanut paste that helps malnourished children gain enough weight to become healthy enough for safe surgery.

“Icardi is a survivor,” Vololona said. “That’s in part thanks to all the counsel and help we’ve received from Operation Smile. With this health crisis, Operation Smile has not forgotten him, nor us. We’re extremely grateful.”

Today, the Operation Smile Madagascar team remains steadfast in their commitment to the health and wellbeing of patients.

Through their continuous efforts to provide nutritional support, 62 patients were enrolled in the organisation’s nutrition programme as of October 2020. Of that total, 47 children reached an optimal weight with 13 more making significant progress along their journey to becoming healthy enough to receive safe surgery.

Help us to continue keeping our promise to patients like Icardi amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Your support today means we can help patients through these uncertain times and provide them with the care and surgery they deserve when it’s safe to resume our work.

Roman waited 19 years for his new life to start

Photo: Rohanna Mertens.

Our promise of improving health and dignity during the COVID-19 pandemic endures. We’re helping frontline health workers stay safe, nourished and empowered to better serve their patients by providing life-saving supplies and equipment, as well as remote training to bolster their response. We’re also providing nutritional assistance, hygiene kits and virtual health services to support people and their health needs so they can thrive. If you can, when you can, help us keep our promise to care for children and create hope for tomorrow.

While his story begins the same as many people born with cleft conditions, Roman was met with many hardships along his journey toward life-changing safe surgery.

The oldest of the five children in his family, Roman grew up never knowing that cleft surgery was possible.

However, even if Roman had known a solution was available, his family had no way of affording the cost of surgery as subsistence farmers, who cultivate only enough food and livestock to meet their own needs.

So, for 19 years, Roman lived with the burden of his unrepaired cleft lip.

He endured torment throughout his life because of his cleft condition, often being called names like “sima,” a derogatory term for cleft lip.

Growing up, he told people in his community that God had given him his lip, but that didn’t stop the hurtful bullying he experienced.

But everything changed for Roman when a local health worker came to his community and told him about an upcoming Operation Smile Madagascar medical mission in Antsirabe.

In the months after learning about his chance to receive surgery, Roman courageously made the bus trip to Antsirabe: It was farther than he had ever travelled away from his home.

Patients arriving at Operation Smile Madagascar's 2016 medical mission to Antsirabe. Photo: Zute Lightfoot.

Roman journeyed three and a half hours to reach our local team in Ifanadiana. They then transported him and other families the six hours to Antsirabe.

In some of the most remote areas of the world, many people like Roman lack access to critically needed resources and timely surgical care.

Operation Smile and its global community of volunteers strive to help patients and families overcome those barriers by bringing safe surgeries and comprehensive healthcare to where it’s needed most.

Upon his arrival to where Operation Smile provides accommodations for patients and their families, Roman was very surprised to see so many others who looked like him.

After passing his comprehensive health evaluation, Roman was deemed healthy enough to receive safe surgery.

On the day of his surgery, Roman admitted that he was scared but excited for his brighter future and ready to see his new smile.

And after receiving a surgery that lasted only around an hour, Roman’s life has permanently changed.

Photo: Rohanna Mertens.

After Roman made the long journey home to his excited community and family, many were surprised that his lip was completely repaired.

Today, Roman lives a happier life and is less shy.

With a new smile and a newfound confidence, Roman has experienced many aspects of life that he had never imagined, including getting a girlfriend.

His life has changed in many ways in the short time since his surgery, and he is looking forward to living a life of dignity, without fear of being teased or laughed at by members of his community.

While most of Operation Smile’s patients are children, there are many like Roman who are unable to receive safe surgical care until later in life.

Through nearly four decades of experience treating cleft, Operation Smile knows that cleft surgery offers optimism and hope – at any age.

“Thank you for taking care of me,” Roman expressed.

Help us to continue keeping our promise to patients like Roman amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Your support today means we can help patients through these uncertain times and provide them with the care and surgery they deserve when it’s safe to resume our work.

Roman, after surgery. Photo: Rohanna Mertens.

After 35 years, Tereza is finally free

Tereza, 35 years old. Photo: Margherita Mirabella.

Our promise of improving health and dignity during the COVID-19 pandemic endures. We’re helping frontline health workers stay safe, nourished and empowered to better serve their patients by providing life-saving supplies and equipment, as well as remote training to bolster their response. We’re also providing nutritional assistance, hygiene kits and virtual health services to support people and their health needs so they can thrive. If you can, when you can, help us keep our promise to care for children and create hope for tomorrow.

After surgery, Tereza embraces her newfound happiness, but the pain of living 35 years with an unrepaired cleft condition isn’t something she’ll forget.  

As a child, Tereza faced torment because of how she looked. As she grew to adulthood, the bullying only intensified.

Some people from her community told her that she was only “half a person” and that she had nothing to contribute to village life.

Despite her dream of one day being accepted by those around her, the harassment caused Tereza to abandon her schooling and forced her to become completely ostracised from her village.

Although there were three people also born with cleft conditions in her community, Tereza’s decision to distance herself from her village also meant separating herself from the only three people who could understand the pain she was facing.

During a seemingly normal day, one of the people living with a cleft lip left to attend an Operation Smile medical mission in 2014.

Without enough money to afford the bus fare that would take her to Lilongwe, Tereza was forced to watch as the bus drove away.

But upon seeing them return with a new smile, Tereza was motivated. And she refused to let anything get in her way of attending the next mission.

Her opportunity came after she contacted Operation Smile Malawi, which arranged free transportation to the upcoming mission, eliminating the obstacle that stood in her way a year before.

Her perseverance paid off, and Tereza was taking the first step in her journey toward ending the painful harassment that had become all too familiar.

Although there were others in her community living with cleft conditions, Tereza believed that they were the only ones.

But after arriving at the mission site, Tereza was shocked to see so many others who looked like her.

For the first time in her life, Tereza felt like she was no longer alone.

Potential patients gather during a 2015 Operation Smile medical mission in Lilongwe, Malawi. This was the day Tereza learned that she was placed on the surgical schedule to receive her free cleft surgery. Photo: Margherita Mirabella.

It’s estimated that, worldwide, a child is born every three minutes with a cleft, which is about one in every 500 to 750 births.

We’re working to discover the causes of cleft through research and putting our evidence into action to prevent cleft conditions before they develop in the womb.

Tereza was amazed by the compassionate volunteers who were donating their time and expertise to patients and their families affected by cleft conditions – a sharp contrast to how she was treated in her community.

Globally, Operation Smile has improved the health and dignity of more than 300,000 patients living with cleft conditions, helping them to breathe, eat, speak and live a better quality of life with greater confidence.

In Malawi, our team is working to address the backlog of people like Tereza who have been unable to access the surgery they need.

For the first time in 35 years, Tereza was among people who would accept her for who she was, and she didn’t have to worry about what they’d say when they saw her cleft lip.

She found peace in the hectic environment of health assessments and pre-surgical appointments and was comforted by the fact that she was surrounded by kind people who understood what she was going through.

Tereza was overcome with happiness and relief when medical volunteers placed her on the schedule to receive her free surgery.

“When I have my surgery, it will be like I’m born again,” Tereza said. “I will be a new person.”

Tereza, after surgery. Photo: Margherita Mirabella.

While looking at her photo taken before surgery, Tereza admitted that she wasn’t happy. Living with an unrepaired cleft had taken a toll on her self-esteem and confidence.

Now, her life is very different.

“I am living a free life,” Tereza happily explained.

Since her successful surgery, Tereza has returned home and become part of her community again.

She loves engaging with others because she no longer fears being ridiculed.

Tereza feels excited to have had the opportunity to receive her life-changing surgery and plans to educate her community about cleft and Operation Smile’s life-changing work with hopes of preventing anyone else from experiencing the pain and loneliness she endured.

Photo: Margherita Mirabella.

From patient to patient advocate

Weston Bello, an Operation Smile student volunteer from Malawi, right, poses with former patient John, who became a patient advocate after receiving surgery at the 2017 medical mission in Zomba, Malawi. Operation Smile photo.

Editor’s note: This story was written by Weston Bello, a student at the University of Malawi, Chancellor College, where he studies philosophy and psychology. As an Operation Smile student volunteer for two years, he’s taken part in two medical missions.

There is a part in the depths of our hearts that drives us to think of other people and seek to help in any way that we can. After John got his surgery from Operation Smile at the 2017 medical mission in Zomba, Malawi, that side of him came to life.

I met John before he got his surgery while he was staying at the patient village that Operation Smile provides at no cost. From what I noticed, he was very troubled by his situation. As he told me his story and the atrocities he had faced because of his cleft, I felt a deep need to help him in any way that I could.

From then onward, we became friends.

John first heard about Operation Smile from a volunteer who came to visit him at his workplace in 2017. When he learned about this opportunity to receive a surgery to care for his cleft lip, he was afraid that perhaps something would go wrong during the surgery. But thanks to the support and encouragement of the volunteers, John rallied the courage and went to the mission site in Zomba.

There, he received the gift of a transformed smile – and soon he would find a way to give back.

“After noticing how other people were suffering from cleft lip and cleft palate, I couldn’t just stand there and watch. I wanted them to get the same help that I got.”

– John, Operation Smile patient advocate in Malawi

At age 52 and close to retirement, John lives with his wife. His sister, who accompanied him to the Zomba mission, lives nearby and would check on him from time to time. A few weeks after the surgery, I visited John at his house to check on him, too.

I believe the day I visited him was the day that he became a volunteer for Operation Smile.

Before I left his house that day, he took me to visit a family that had a relative with cleft lip. I sat there listening to John talk to the family about Operation Smile and how it had changed his life, and I was very impressed.

From then onward, John went out and started looking for other people born with cleft lip and cleft palate so that they could receive the same gift that he did.

At the 2018 medical mission to Blantyre, John returned not as a patient, but as a volunteer. He helped out with patient coordination at the patient village.

Today, he continues to find other people born with cleft lip and cleft palate and shows them pictures of him before surgery. When people see the pictures, then see his new smile, they become motivated to receive care from Operation Smile.

He said that his life changed after getting his surgery; he is a happy person now. Once he retires, John said that he will continue reaching out to people and hopes that many people will also get free and safe surgeries and be happy as well.

“After noticing how other people were suffering from cleft lip and cleft palate, I couldn’t just stand there and watch,” John said. “I wanted them to get the same help that I got.”

Celebrating National Mentoring Month: Our Volunteers Create Lasting Impacts

Volunteer surgeons Drs. Wafaa Mradmi of Morocco, left, Rocio Trujillo of Ecuador, Souad Terrab of Morocco and Saloua Ettalbi of Morocco during our all-female medical mission in Oujda, Morocco. Photo: Jasmin Shah.

Our promise of improving health and dignity during the COVID-19 pandemic endures. We’re helping frontline health workers stay safe, nourished and empowered to better serve their patients by providing life-saving supplies and equipment, as well as remote training to bolster their response. We’re also providing nutritional assistance, hygiene kits and virtual health services to support people and their health needs so they can thrive. If you can, when you can, help us keep our promise to care for children and create hope for tomorrow.

While the world faces new challenges, it’s vital that Operation Smile and our community of volunteers continue looking ahead and remain focused on working toward a brighter future for the patients and families we serve. 

Throughout January, we’re celebrating National Mentoring Month and recognising the medical and non-medical volunteers who enhance our world and strengthen our ability to reach more patients through mentoring the leaders of tomorrow.

During our cleft surgeon training programme in Madagascar, observers Drs. Briand Michel Rakotomanga, left, and Ravaka Ny Aina Rakotorahalahy, third from the left, watch as Dr. Lora Mae de Guzman of the Philippines operates. Photo: Rohanna Mertens.

Operation Smile changes the lives of children around the world with safe, effective and timely surgery thanks to the help of medical volunteers, partnerships, donors and devoted student volunteers.

It’s through training and mentorship programmes that our volunteer instructors have an opportunity to become mentors themselves, passing on their knowledge, passion and expertise they’ve gained as volunteers to students who will lead future generations for years to come.

Celebrating these stories presents an opportunity to spread positive messages, enact change in the countries where we work and encourage more people to join in our efforts to provide safe surgery and exceptional medical care.

Team photo on the second day of screening for Operation Smile's Women in Medicine: Inspiring a Generation medical mission at Hospital Al Farabi in Oujda, Morocco. Photo: Jasmin Shah.

Many of our female volunteers serve in pivotal roles, delivering high-quality surgical and multi-disciplinary care to patients affected by cleft. Last year, they were celebrated during our first international medical mission comprised entirely of women: Women in Medicine: Inspiring a Generation.

The mission brought together dentists, surgeons, nurses, biomedical technicians and others to share knowledge and inspire one another.

Members of the team engaged in training and mentorship activities, including an innovative cleft surgery simulation workshop for plastic surgery residents. The education components of the mission provided enrichment opportunities for female physicians that might not otherwise be available to them.

These simulations not only enhanced skills and empowered the medical professionals involved, but they also acted as another step toward these women one day becoming credentialed volunteer surgeons for Operation Smile.

“On average, an Operation Smile medical mission team is comprised of 60 percent female volunteers,” said Kathy Magee, Operation Smile Co-Founder and President. “We already know that our work simply wouldn’t be possible without their talent, generosity and compassion.”

Participating in the Serving Smile programme, Operation Smile student volunteers deliver meals to Sentara Leigh Hospital in Norfolk, Virginia. Operation Smile photo.

When COVID-19 introduced us to a new normal, our student programmes manager in Virginia Beach, Virginia, Pete Hansen, launched the Serving Smiles pilot programme, which underscored the power of rallying young people to support a cause.

His student volunteers partnered with local restaurants to bring meals to healthcare professionals caring for patients in local hospitals.

This inspired student volunteers to serve their communities by bringing much-needed business to family-owned eateries in addition to fuelling healthcare professionals battling COVID-19 on the frontlines.

“Even in the worst of times, Operation Smile finds ways to give back and support communities globally and locally,” said actress Kate Walsh. “I’m proud of the organisation and its newly launched Serving Smiles programme, which involves donating thousands of meals to hospitals. This effort feeds the soul and spirit of our healthcare workers on the frontlines of the COVID-19 fight. It’s a kind gesture that shows gratitude and appreciation for those putting their life on the line to protect ours.”

Members of the cook stove team speak to Holly Zoeller over Skype during their training at Operation Smile Global Headquarters in January 2020. Photo: Bethany Bogacki.

Our student programmes provide young volunteers with the opportunity to spread awareness, raise funds and educate others on medical missions.

These students often come back as mentors who are inspired to spearhead ideas such as the Cook Stove Project.

Our partners in research found a potential relationship between maternal smoke inhalation from an open-flame cook stove top and an increased risk of a child being born with a cleft condition.

A group of student volunteers took the initiative to the next level by raising money that will fund new cooking stoves for low- and middle-income countries like Chiapas, Mexico.

One of the volunteers, Holly Zoeller, began her journey with Operation Smile in high school when she travelled to Madagascar to educate young patients on the fundamentals of healthcare.

As a James Graham Brown Fellow at the University of Louisville, Holly used her grant money to continue her work with Operation Smile to provide children with safe surgery and medical care.

She pitched her cook stove idea to our student programmes team and soon found herself partnering with InfraRural, an organisation that specialises in building and installing wood-burning stoves.

Holly and her team’s efforts show the impact inspiration can have on communities around the world.

Volunteer clinical coordinator Doreenlove Serwaa of Ghana shares a special moment with a patient after surgery during Operation Smile's first local mission to Koforidua. Ghana. Photo: Zute Lightfoot.

As a Ghanaian nurse, Doreenlove Serwah relies on the courage and collaboration of her team to ensure the safety and care of every patient she meets.

In 2016, she joined our team and volunteered as a recovery room nurse devoted to providing care and support to patients and their families after surgery.

Doreenlove quickly transitioned from student to teacher when she became an instructor for American Heart Association basic and paediatric advanced life support courses.

Even then, Doreenlove felt motivated to do more.

Ready to harness her skills as an educator and a nurse, Doreenlove sought out the position of clinical coordinator.

“The clinical coordinator role is integral and paramount in the planning and execution of a mission,” she said. “Through that, I’ve discovered capabilities I didn’t know I had.”

Doreenlove went on to mobilise teams of volunteers coming from all around the world.

“Volunteering with Operation Smile paved the way for me to explore and use my leadership qualities,” Doreenlove said. “I’ve become a better nurse and a mentor to many.”

Our volunteers may offer different skillsets and come from different backgrounds, but they all share the same motivation to give back to their communities and inspire the next generation through compassion and education.

We nurture leadership and encourage the celebration of all volunteers during National Mentoring Month and throughout the year. We hope these powerful stories will inspire and empower the next generation of advocacy-minded leaders to enact positive changes on a global scale.

Help us to continue keeping our promise amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Your support today means we can help patients through these uncertain times and provide them with the care and surgery they deserve when it’s safe to resume our work.

Volunteer dentist Dr. Hanan Elayyan smiles wide at 1-year-old Bissan for their surgery during Operation Smile's medical mission to Amman, Jordan. Photo: Jasmin Shah.

Pre-surgical dental care saved Janat’s life

Janat, 1-month-old. Photo: Jasmin Shah.

Our promise of improving health and dignity during the COVID-19 pandemic endures. We’re helping frontline health workers stay safe, nourished and empowered to better serve their patients by providing life-saving supplies and equipment, as well as remote training to bolster their response. We’re also providing nutritional assistance, hygiene kits and virtual health services to support people and their health needs so they can thrive. If you can, when you can, help us keep our promise to care for children and create hope for tomorrow.

When Janat entered the world in her small Moroccan village, no one could’ve predicted the physical and emotional challenges that laid ahead for her and her family.

Remembering back to the day when she saw her daughter’s smile for the first time, Fatima recalled the shock and fear that filled her heart.

But as she held her newborn baby in her arms, Fatima knew that there wasn’t anything in this world she wouldn’t do to protect and care for Janat.

However, due to factors outside of her control, keeping that promise became increasingly more difficult as Janat’s health rapidly began to decline.

For children born with cleft conditions, especially a cleft palate like Janat’s, they often encounter major hurdles with feeding and struggle to receive proper nourishment during the most critical time in a baby’s development.

Janat and Fatima confronted these obstacles every day.

“I was afraid that I was going to lose her,” Fatima said. “She was suffocating and the milk would come out of her nose. She can’t finish a bottle.”

Fearing for her daughter’s health, Fatima helplessly watched as Janat steadily became smaller and sicker during her first weeks of life.

“I knew that surgery was possible,” she said. “But I was scared and didn’t know where to go or who to ask.”

This is the case for many families of children born with cleft conditions.

Despite the consistent failed attempts at feeding Janat and the fear of watching her become more malnourished each day, Fatima persevered, determined to keep the promise she made.

Then one day, Fatima’s hopes were realised.

Volunteer dentist Dr. Teresita Pannaci of Venezuela, left, observes as Janat is fed by her mom while testing out her new feeding plate. Photo: Jasmin Shah.

After seeing an Operation Smile Morocco commercial, Fatima learned that the organisation not only provides free surgical care, but that there was an upcoming medical mission taking place in a little over a week in Oujda, a neighbouring city.

Overjoyed to learn there were skilled people devoted to caring for children with cleft conditions, Fatima and her husband prepared to make the journey, hoping that it wasn’t too late for 1-month-old Janat, who’d already lost nearly half of her birth weight.

Alongside hundreds of families seeking out care from Operation Smile Morocco’s highly trained medical professionals, Janat and her parents arrived in Oujda for screening day fully prepared to do whatever they could to save her life.

It was a long and gruelling day for the family as volunteer paediatricians, anaesthesiologists, nurses and other specialties assessed Janat’s health throughout the screening process.

It quickly became clear to the volunteer team that Janat wouldn’t pass her comprehensive health evaluation.

Having been unable to eat properly for the first month of her life, Janat had become severely malnourished and wasn’t healthy enough for safe surgery.

Just as Fatima started to think that they’d return home without a solution, the team of volunteer dentists on-site sprang into action.

Joining forces with Operation Smile Morocco staff, Drs. Carmen Kamas-Weiting of the U.S. and Teresita Pannaci of Venezuela stepped in, quickly transporting Janat and her family to the local care centre.

“I was so happy,” Fatima said while surrounded by the dental team preparing to fit Janat with a feeding plate. “I’m happy that, finally, she will receive help.”

With a cleft palate – a gap in the roof the mouth – patients struggle to eat or drink because milk oftentimes spills out of their nose or causes them to choke, making it almost impossible to obtain the necessary amount of nutrition needed to thrive and gain weight.

Having a cleft palate also makes patients vulnerable to illness, as they are more susceptible to infection, disease and even death.

To protect patients like Janat from the dangers of malnourishment – dangers that can prevent them from receiving the timely cleft surgery they need – dentists like Teresita and Carmen rely on pre-surgical dental care like feeding plates.

The soft mold of Janat's cleft palate, which later became her feeding plate that would allow her to drink milk with ease. Photo: Jasmin Shah.

The plates serve as the first step toward surgery, leading patients away from starvation and guiding them toward a healthier life – toward surgery.

“A baby with a cleft palate can’t eat,” Teresita said. “That’s why it’s so important to rehabilitate the function of breathing, sucking and swallowing food so that the child is eating in the home environment. This is the real reason why treatment must be done from birth.”

Patiently waiting for the dentists to create the plate, Fatima shared with the team that Janat could only manage to consume around three ounces of milk throughout an entire day. This amount is dangerously lower than the recommended two to three ounces of milk newborns are expected to consume every few hours.

With the feeding plate, the process of eating for Janat was transformed.

After testing out her new plate for the first time, Janat drank two and a half ounces of milk in less than eight minutes.

“I started to feel calm; [the plate] was working,” Teresita said. “I looked at her mother, and that’s when I saw she had tears in her eyes. When I asked, ‘Why are you crying? What kind of tears are these?’ She said, ‘They are tears of happiness,’ because she knew that her daughter was safe.”

Fatima, filled with relief, revealed that it was the first time she’d ever seen Janat drink without suffocating.

“I was so happy. I was so relieved,” she said. “I’m very grateful for what you’ve done for my daughter. I’ve never seen kind hearts like yours before.”

Fatima and Janat returned to the care centre once more during the mission before heading home. Adapting well to her new feeding plate, Janat slept comfortably in her mother’s arms with a belly full of milk for the second day in a row.

For the first time, Fatima watches as Janat drinks milk with ease thanks to her daughter's new feeding plate. Photo: Jasmin Shah.

Drinking a few ounces of milk may seem insignificant, but the plate also enables patients to reach even larger milestones: improving nutrition, achieving and maintaining weight for surgery, breathing easier for a better quality of life, lessening the severity of the cleft palate as well as improving jaw and nose development.

While Janat didn’t receive surgery during the March Oujda mission, Fatima’s determination was stronger than ever before, and she planned to return to the centre on an ongoing basis to allow for volunteers to monitor Janat’s care and progress.

Janat’s journey so far has been filled with fear, uncertainty and seemingly impossible obstacles. But no matter what lies ahead, Fatima refuses to give up.

“Nothing is too hard when it comes to my daughter. I will do anything.”

Shortly after the conclusion of the March mission in Oujda, Operation Smile Morocco, like all of our teams around the world, made the decision to postpone future missions and care delivery at care centres. While the decision was made to ensure the safety of patients, families, volunteers and staff, the postponements left people like Janat and Fatima waiting.

Thankfully, through closely following all health ministry guidelines and protocols, including mask-wearing, social distancing, temperature screenings and more, the Moroccan team has successfully reopened its care centre doors, allowing for waiting patients like Janat to return and continue their ongoing care.

Today, Janat is 10 months old and her condition has dramatically improved.

Through her family’s commitment to improving her health and the success of her feeding plate, Janat’s weight has significantly increased and she continues to show incredible developmental progress. To this day, Fatima remains hopeful for Janat’s continued improvement.

“My daughter will be OK. I’m happy now,” she said. “Surgery will be life-changing. In the future, Janat will get an education.”

Help us keep our promise to patients like Janat amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Your support today means we can continue to help them through these uncertain times and provide them with the ongoing pre- and post-surgical care they deserve when it’s safe to resume our work around the world.

10-month-old Janat, today. With the help of her feeding plate, along with her family's dedication and love to care for her, Janat has become healthier and gained considerable weight. Photo courtesy of Janat's family.

When All Seems Lost, Hope Appears

Photo: Marc Ascher

Shocked and heartbroken when her baby Valeska was born with a cleft lip, Zorida received more discouraging news within the first moments of her daughter’s life.

No sooner than learning that surgery was possible to repair Valeska’s cleft lip, the young Nicaraguan mother was told by doctors that the procedure would be far too expensive for her and Valeska’s father to afford. The couple was informed that more affordable, possibly even free, surgical treatments could be found in Managua — a six-hour bus trip from their hometown.

Every six weeks after the birth of her bright-eyed daughter, Zorida travelled to Nicaragua’s capital only to return home dejected. Each time she sought help for her baby, she realised surgery cost much more than the family could afford. One round trip cost the family 1,800 córdobas (£45) — a massive drain on their average weekly income of 1,000 córdobas (£25) — making it so Valeska’s father couldn’t afford to accompany 17-year-old Zorida and his baby on their journeys.

“I was so sad,” Zorida said. “I felt that there was no solution for my baby.”

Back at home, Zorida experienced ridicule from neighbours who blamed her for her daughter’s condition. Drawing from deeply-rooted local superstition, they said that Valeska’s condition resulted from Zorida walking outside during an eclipse.

Photo: Marc Ascher

“People laugh at my baby,” Zorida said. “They taunt her and I hear others talking about her. They tell their children that she’s horrible and if they stare at her, they could look that way too.”

Zorida couldn’t help but to feel a sense of guilt that Valeska was born this way.

“I thought it was somehow my fault,” she said. “I thought that somehow this was God’s judgment on me.”

As hope and resources dwindled after 10 months of searching, a call from the local hospital provided relief for the young family. Operation Smile was conducting a medical mission in Estelí — three hours away — and that free surgery was possible for Valeska.

Again, Valeska’s father struggled to earn the money to pay for the bus fare. Like each of the previous trips to Managua, he was unable to embark on this life-changing trek.

Anaesthesia resident Anna Bengsston of Sweden comforts Valeska. Photo: Marc Ascher.

At the medical mission’s site, Hospital San Juan de Dios, Zorida waited nervously while holding Valeska. Naturally, she remembered her unsuccessful attempts to access safe surgical care for her daughter and the disappointment that inevitably followed. After a successful screening, Zorida beamed with pure elation when she learned Valeska was selected for surgery. Now, she could exhale knowing that the bus ride back home would be filled with joy instead of despair.

In a single surgical procedure, Operation Smile volunteers repaired Valeska’s cleft lip, giving her a beautiful new smile in time for her first birthday.

Since Valeska’s surgery, Operation Smile Nicaragua opened the doors of its new cleft lip and cleft palate care centre in Managua in May 2016. The largest of its kind in the country, the centre serves as the administrative and educational headquarters for Operation Smile’s medical programmes as well as the treatment site for over 800 patients who regularly receive follow-up care. Its presence also helps eliminate resource-draining searches for families like Valeska’s.

Photo: Marc Ascher

Women in Medicine: Mentoring the Next Generation

Our promise of improving health and dignity during the COVID-19 pandemic endures. We’re helping frontline health workers stay safe, nourished and empowered to better serve their patients by providing life-saving supplies and equipment, as well as remote training to bolster their response. We’re also providing nutritional assistance, hygiene kits and virtual health services to support people and their health needs so they can thrive. If you can, when you can, help us keep our promise to care for children and create hope for tomorrow.

Standing alongside the women who mentored and inspired them, our instructors became mentors themselves, passing on their knowledge, passion and expertise as volunteers to their students who will lead future generations for years to come.

The female volunteers who serve pivotal roles in delivering high-quality surgical and multi-disciplinary care to patients affected by cleft were celebrated during our first international medical mission comprised entirely of women: Women in Medicine: Inspiring a Generation.

“On average, an Operation Smile medical mission team is comprised of 60 percent female volunteers,” said Kathy Magee, Operation Smile Co-Founder and President. “We already know that our work simply wouldn’t be possible without their talent, generosity and compassion.”

Two-year-old Radouane smiles wide as he waits with his mother to receive his comprehensive health evaluation during screening day. Photo: Jasmin Shah.

In Oujda, Morocco, the female-led team of more than 50 medical volunteers from 25 countries joined forces to efficiently and collaboratively provide 286 patients with comprehensive health evaluations.

Of that total, nearly 130 children like Radouane received life-changing surgeries and brighter futures.

Nearly three years ago, Radouane’s mum, Safia, gave birth alone at home. But even after seeing his cleft lip, the love she had for him never faltered.

“I was not afraid. I’d seen kids like that before, and I knew that this was the gods’ fate. I’m grateful for what the gods gave me,” she said. “He’s my son. I love him, no matter what.”

While once bullied for having an unrepaired cleft condition, Radouane now has a renewed chance at a dignified and healthy life thanks to the dedicated women who volunteered their time and skill to the mission.

But changing lives through surgery wasn’t the only accomplishment the all-female medical team achieved during this mission.

“Biomed techs, nurses, surgeons, dentists all come together and, with their different skills, teach everybody something new,” said volunteer dentist Dr. Carmen Kamas-Weiting from the U.S.

Volunteer cleft surgeon Dr. Wafaa Mradmi (right) instructs a fellow surgeon during the cleft lip and cleft palate surgical training workshop Photo: Jasmin Shah.

The team engaged in training and mentorship activities, including an innovative cleft surgery simulation workshop for plastic surgery residents.

The training and education components of the mission provided enrichment opportunities for female physicians that might not otherwise be available to them.

Cleft surgeons Drs. Wafaa Mradmi of Morocco, fellow mentor Irene Tangco of the Philippines and Saloua Ettalbi of Morocco led the surgical simulations. Thanks to their expertise, medical students as well as certified plastic surgeons learned techniques unique to performing surgery on people with cleft, resulting in improved surgical outcomes for patients.

These simulations not only enhanced skills and empowered the medical professionals involved, but they also acted as another step toward these women one day becoming a credentialed volunteer surgeons for Operation Smile.

“I think, as a surgeon who has technical skills, we are really blessed,” Wafaa said. “We have this unique chance to help people, to pass on our skills to the new generations for them to be able to give this cure and this care to those kids. I had this chance with Irene many years ago, and I’m still learning from her.”

Janat, 1-month-old. Photo: Jasmin Shah.

Dental training workshops also took place at the Operation Smile Morocco year-round care centre in Oujda, which allowed the dental students involved to enhance their knowledge of the intricacies that go into delivering high-quality pre- and post-surgical dental care to patients living with cleft.

When 1-month-old Janat arrived with her parents, Carmen alerted her fellow dental volunteers after realising that Janat was severely malnourished due to her cleft lip and palate.

Volunteer dentist and leader of the workshops Dr. Teresita Pannaci of Venezuela sprang into action and transported Janat and her family to the centre to be fitted for a feeding plate.

A few of the dental students were given the real-life opportunity to apply what they learned from the workshops during Janat’s two visits to the centre.

It was there that Teresita demonstrated how feeding plates are measured and moulded and why the plates can be life-saving for patients with severe cleft palates like Janat.

“For me, being an instructor or teacher in this is extremely important because … we need a generation to inherit this and inspire generations,” Teresita said. “It’s what we’re doing here. When I see this new generation that we’re beginning to train, they’re working, they understand what their role is, they are committed to the lives of patients.”

The soft mold of Janat's cleft palate, which later became her feeding plate that would allow her to drink milk with ease. Photo: Jasmin Shah.

Since being born, Janat had lost nearly half of her birth weight by the time she arrived to the mission. Her undernourishment was due to the challenges her mother, Fatima, faced when attempting to feed her.

Janat’s cleft palate would cause her to choke with milk coming out of her nose. Not knowing who to talk to or what to do, Fatima felt helpless and feared for her daughter’s life as she saw Janat’s health start to decline.

“I was afraid that I was going to lose her,” Fatima said.

Thanks to the feeding plate that Janat and one other child received at the centre from Teresita, Carmen and the dental team, eating, breathing and drinking became easier for her.

Fatima shared that Janat would only drink an average of 3 ounces of milk throughout a day. After testing out her new feeding plate, Janat drank 2.5 ounces in 10 minutes. According to Fatima, it was the first time she’d ever seen her baby drink without suffocating.

Volunteer dentist Dr. Teresita Pannaci, left, looks on as Janat's mom, Fatima, feeds her daughter for the first time with the addition of the feeding plate. Photo: Jasmin Shah.

“It was lovely to see our volunteers coming from the 25 countries, from five continents,” said Operation Smile Morocco Co-Founder Fouzia Mahmoudi. “Sharing their know-how with our residents and our surgeons, sharing it with the same love, with the same dedication, from the bottom of their heart. We are just a university without walls.”

Team photo on the second day of screening for Operation Smile's Women in Medicine: Inspiring a Generation medical mission at Hospital Al Farabi in Oujda, Morocco. Photo: Jasmin Shah.

For people interested in joining the medical field, hoping to one day impact the lives of patients like Radouane and Janat, volunteer post-anaesthesia care unit nurse Florence Mangula has a message.

“I would tell them, “Take up your position, do it with all your heart, so that you’re able to help the less fortunate people in the community. Do it with the passion to see somebody smile, the passion to see a family united, the passion to remove the stigma from the family and make a child smile.”

Help us keep our promise to more patients amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Your support today means we can continue to help them through these uncertain times and provide them with the surgery they deserve when it’s safe to resume our work around the world.

Post-anaesthesia care unit nurse Florence Mangula of Kenya checks in on a patient and their mother after surgery in the recovery room. Photo Jasmin Shah.

Meet Our Patients: Mossoró, Brazil

In 2017, 67-year-old Dona Maria received surgery during an Operation Smile Brazil medical mission. Photo: Marcelo Braga.

Our promise of improving health and dignity during the COVID-19 pandemic endures. We’re helping frontline health workers stay safe, nourished and empowered to better serve their patients by providing life-saving supplies and equipment, as well as remote training to bolster their response. We’re also providing nutritional assistance, hygiene kits and virtual health services to support people and their health needs so they can thrive. If you can, when you can, help us keep our promise to care for children and create hope for tomorrow.

In the densely populated city of Mossoró, Brazil, Dona Maria spent her entire life living with an unrepaired cleft lip.

While she undoubtedly faced challenges and overcame obstacles because of her cleft, 67-year-old Dona Maria consistently dreamt of one thing.

Though seen by many as a simple pleasure, what she wished for most was to wear lipstick.

During a 2017 Operation Smile Brazil medical mission, Dona Maria passed her health evaluation and underwent her long-awaited surgery, feeling closer than ever to reaching that dream.

Dona Maria 2

Moments after waking from the operation, Dona Maria felt eager to see her new smile.

After 67 years of living with a cleft condition, she proudly showed the entire medical volunteer team who were thrilled to be a part of that special moment.

After allowing her lip to properly heal from surgery, Dona Maria could finally live out her dream of putting on red lipstick for the first time in her life.

Laine Paiva, a volunteer photographer for Operation Smile Brazil, was so moved by Dona Maria’s story that she arranged a photoshoot with her, capturing images of her dreams becoming reality.