Operation Smile

First all-women’s medical mission team will treat over a hundred with cleft lip and cleft palate

To mark International Women’s Day on 8th March, Operation Smile will conduct its first international medical mission comprised entirely of female volunteers.

Every three minutes, a child is born with a cleft lip or cleft palate, and without surgery will struggle to eat, speak and socialise, many being shunned by their communities.

In the UK, cleft lip and cleft palates are operated on in the first three to six months of a child being born. However, in many countries medical resources are scarce, and when available the cost is prohibitive – in some countries the cost of an operation is a year’s salary.

Run by 54 female volunteers from 27 countries, the unique mission in Morocco will demonstrate the lasting impact women have had on their programmes; on average a mission is comprised of 60 percent female volunteers.

Operation Smile carries out hundreds of medical missions throughout the year all over the world, with the long term vision of improving the local healthcare system in the area. In addition to mobilising highly accredited medical volunteers, Operation Smile provides training to local medical personnel and partners with hospitals, governments and ministries of health in order to ensure that safe surgery is a right for everyone in need.

As a result of their sustainable local training, Operation Smile Morocco, host of the first-ever all women’s medical mission, has an impressive three Cleft Care Centres, which are run by local medical professionals. Indeed, over 85 percent of all Operation Smile missions globally are now conducted by local teams, a testament to the power of education for local healthcare professionals.

For Nurhayati Lubis, a Consultant Anaesthetist working in the NHS, the first-ever all women’s medical mission will be her eighth trip with Operation Smile. She says: “It is hugely inspiring to see such a diverse team of women with such a range of skills, all working together. Working with colleagues from across the globe often results in stimulating discussions on different healthcare systems across the world and how we can learn best practices from each other. That's something that I can take back to the NHS with fresh eyes.”

Nurhayati hopes to inspire girls and young women to pursue careers in medicine and demonstrate the lasting impact female medical volunteers have.

She says: “I have been most impressed in countries where Operation Smile has left behind a legacy by establishing a local medical team who can continue the good work once the mission is over. I've seen this first-hand in Nicaragua, Ghana and the Philippines. Whilst the objective of the mission was to treat the children, the aim was also to empower the local teams of nurses and doctors to continue to provide cleft surgery locally once the mission is over. By establishing care centres, they can carry out regular treatments and continue to train local surgeons and anaesthetists. For example, the anaesthesia skills that are taught by Operation Smile can be used to benefit all surgical patients, aside from cleft. This has the most local impact as far as I'm concerned.”

While two volunteers on the first-ever Operation Smile All Women’s Medical Mission team in Morocco are from the UK, nearly 25 percent are Moroccan women, including six surgeons.

Children with cleft lip or cleft palate can be considered untouchable and shunned by the community who see them as cursed. Some untreated teenagers even report considering suicide. This is why therapy, as well as raising awareness of cleft conditions, are of prime importance. Children with a cleft condition can be vulnerable to malnourishment as it can be difficult to feed properly, which is why nutritional support for both child and the wider family is key.

Nurhayati Lubis and the wider team of female volunteers will be in Oujda, Morocco from March 5th to March 14th for Operation Smile’s First Women’s Mission.

  • Months in advance local coordinators visit towns and villages throughout the country to find those living with cleft conditions. This is to reach patients living in hard to reach areas, who may not know that surgery is possible or in communities where cleft conditions aren’t well understood, and patients might be isolated or shunned. Television, radio, billboards and social media may also be used to reach as many people as possible.
  • Children with cleft can struggle to feed properly. Malnourished patients are referred to a volunteer nutritionist to ensure they reach a healthy weight ahead of surgery.
  • Experienced medical leaders are paired with young medical professionals to help develop their skills. All volunteers are trained to the same Operation Smile Global Standards of Care, regardless of where they live.
  • Operation Smile aims to deliver 25-30 surgeries a day during a mission.
  • The team aims to follow up with each patient a few weeks after surgery. This can be difficult when patients live in remote areas, so efforts are helped by ongoing partnerships with local hospitals and universities, as well as the presence of an OS Cleft Care Centre to provide cleft care all year round.

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