For Dr. William Magee Jr. and his wife Kathy, opening their hearts, being compassionate, and changing lives one smile at a time is what their life’s mission is all about. As a plastic and craniofacial surgeon, William, and Kathy, who is a nurse and clinical social worker, accompanied several other medical volunteers to the Philippines to repair children’s cleft lips and cleft palates. Unable to help all the children in need of surgery, the Magees promised to return—and they did. They started Operation Smile in 1982 and now, with the help of some 6,000 credentialed medical volunteers, Operation Smile is in more than 30 countries, including the U.S., and has helped approximately 300,000 children and young adults with orofacial clefts to smile with confidence.
A Blessing in Disguise
A simple smile can change lives. For Oscar and Devan, Operation Smile changed the entire trajectory of their lives. Oscar was born in Bogota, Colombia, with both a cleft lip and cleft palate. His mother was only 17 and ill equipped to deal with how her son’s condition would affect both of them. Oscar was seen at a state-owned hospital where doctors performed surgery, but they were not cleft specialists, and all the stitches broke open the following day. Oscar’s mother tried a second time for surgery, but the procedure had to be canceled because Oscar had the flu.
This turned out to be a blessing for both Oscar and his mother since someone soon mentioned Operation Smile. Oscar’s mother said that when they first entered the doors of the hospital where Operation Smile was working, everything changed.
Operation Smile is dedicated to not only taking care of the patient but their family as well. They have comprehensive care centers around the world, and after surgery, they offer speech therapy, nutritional therapy, and psychological therapy. Both Oscar and his mother received the help, love, and compassion they were in desperate need of before and after Oscar’s surgery. In 2019 Oscar graduated from Universidad El Bosque with a bachelor’s degree in bilingual education. Oscar aspires to move to the United States as an ESL teacher for children who are native Spanish speakers. Oscar said, “Operation Smile has meant very much to me. They gave me the tools and motivation to improve my life, to live a life with higher quality. Without exaggerating, I have Operation Smile to thank for almost everything in my life. They were there by my side, all the time, through the treatment and into my social integration.”
Utah native Devan Griner’s story is a bit different. In 1995, KSL TV reporter Jane Clayson, video editor Bob Brown, and Devan’s father, chief videographer George Griner, produced a documentary called “Faces of Hope,” which documented one of Operation Smile’s missions to China. After watching the documentary, Devan and his brothers started an Operation Smile support group at Skyline High School. They raised $10,000, and Operation Smile invited Devan to go on a surgical mission to Vietnam as a student volunteer. When Devan entered the hospital where Operation Smile was working, everything changed. Devan had always wanted to be a videographer like his father, but after his experiences with Operation Smile he knew his life would take a different path. In a recent interview with KSL’s John Hollenhorst, Devan stated, “Being able to see what could be done in such a short period of time and the emotion and the effect it was going to have for that child, that you could see in the family and everybody else. . . . You literally could change a life in a matter of minutes, and it made me decide that’s what I wanted to do.” Devan became a plastic surgeon, and 25 years after his first visit to Vietnam, his journey came full circle when he returned to Vietnam in 2019—this time as one of Operation Smile’s volunteer surgeons, with his father at his side capturing moments of hope, healing, and smiling, through video and photos.
Healing and Offering Hope
A simple smile can heal and offer hope. Nicole Bell, director of public relations for Operation Smile, has had the opportunity to go on several medical missions and says, “The families of these children are so incredibly grateful. You see it in their eyes. They are full of hope for their child.”
She continues, “It is amazing to see a parent hand over their child to a complete stranger. They don’t know our medical volunteers, but they believe in the work that we do and they know that we are there to help, to support them. When their child reemerges with their cleft corrected it is just amazing, truly life changing. Many of these families do not have the money or resources to have this type of surgery done for their child, so really without Operation Smile the child would not have received surgery. So what happens? No surgery. Sometimes these kids are hidden away. There’s a stigmatization socially attached to them. No surgery, no education, no job opportunity as an adult. What kind of life is that?”
It’s not a life, which is why this quote from co-founder Kathy Magee is prominently featured on a mural at Operation Smile’s headquarters: “Every child that has a cleft condition is our responsibility. If we don’t take care of that child, there’s no guarantee that anyone else will.”
Facing a Daunting Task
It’s a daunting task, but it’s one that Operation Smile is up to meeting with the help of volunteers and donors. Lisa Jardanhazy, the organization’s vice president of communications and public relations, stated, “Three years ago, Frito-Lay first partnered with Operation Smile for their ‘Smile with Lay’s’ campaign, where they feature the smile of someone who is giving back and putting smiles on the faces of others, on their potato chip bags. Nicole said, “They’re [Lay’s] about smiling, they’re about happiness and joy for people, and that’s in alignment with Operation Smile. This year, three people connected to Operation Smile are a part of that campaign, including our co-founder Kathy Magee, so we are really excited about it.”
Doing It All for the Children
One reason that both Lisa and Nicole were drawn to Operation Smile is because they love kids. Nicole said it well: “All kids should have the same opportunity as the next kid. Your zip code, your country, your location shouldn’t dictate whether you get essential surgery. It shouldn’t dictate whether you get a good education. Kids are kids, and they all deserve an equal chance.” Lisa wholeheartedly agrees. “Mother Teresa said, Every time you smile at someone, it is an action of love, a gift to that person, a beautiful thing,” she says. “Every surgery performed to fix a cleft lip or cleft palate is an action of love, a gift to that person, and those smiles are a beautiful thing.” Visit operationsmile.org to learn more.
This article was originally published in Fall 2018.