Assuring the Highest Quality of Care

Volunteer nurse and clinical coordinator Mamta Shah with a patient during a 2017 Operation Smile medical mission. Photo: Anja Ligtenberg.

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 it comes to our work of delivering exceptional cleft care to people around the world, the safety of our patients has been, and will always be, our greatest priority.

As an organisation comprised of compassionate and selfless medical professionals who go above and beyond by donating their time, energy and expertise to our mission, it wasn’t a surprise when some of those volunteers expressed interest in doing more with their volunteerism.

As many volunteers voiced a desire to serve on more medical missions, Operation Smile’s medical quality team created an innovative solution: The team established a position that not only presents volunteers with more opportunities to learn and care for patients, but further strengthens and enhances our safety protocols.

Bryan Zimmerman, Operation Smile Assistant Vice President of Quality Assurance, said that the inspiration behind creating a volunteer quality assurance (QA) officer position was to continue improving upon two of the organisation’s top priorities, the safety of our patients and the quality of their surgical results. QA officers’ evaluations are designed to bolster the knowledge, practices and abilities of our medical volunteers around the world.

“The only way to effectively create a culture of safety and quality is by showing that you care,” Bryan said.

Operation Smile Assistant Vice President of Quality Assurance, Bryan Zimmerman, centre, speaks to a mother and patient during a 2019 medical mission in Antsirabe, Madagascar. Photo: Lorenzo Monacelli.

After creating the curriculum for the QA training programme, Bryan and his team received applications from more than 35 volunteers from countries including Italy, Mexico, the U.K., Australia, Norway, South Africa and the U.S.

Of that total, 11 volunteers participated in and passed the five-day tactical training and education course that took place at Operation Smile Headquarters in November and December of 2019.

Volunteer clinical coordinator Mamta Shah checks the vitals of a patient after surgery. Photo: Anja Lightenberg.
Volunteer clinical coordinator Mamta Shah checks the vitals of a patient after surgery. Photo: Anja Lightenberg.

“Simulation stations were set up that provided opportunities to touch and feel what different parts of the mission are like,” said Mamta Shah, a volunteer nurse, clinical coordinator and QA officer. “The final was a walk through, an actual chart audit and mission audit twice. This was an incredibly valuable experience for volunteers.”

Posing as staff and volunteers, actors intentionally made mistakes and missteps during the mission simulation that the QA officers would be tested to identify. They were assessed during each of the mission phases: screening, pre-operative, anaesthesia, surgery, recovery and post-operative.

For Rodney Kapunan, a volunteer pre- and post-operative nurse with years of mission experience, the QA training instilled in him a new appreciation and respect for all roles and specialties.

“Training was an eye-opener for every one of us, because even though we are seasoned volunteers with more than 10 missions and experienced in our fields, we are now tasked to oversee the processes of the whole mission,” Rodney said.

Photo courtesy of Rodney Kapunan.

“Operation Smile is distinguished for being an association that follows the quality standards established,” said Rosa Sanchez, a volunteer nurse, clinical coordinator and quality assurance officer for Operation Smile Mexico. “We guarantee that patients receive good attention and give the family full security that their kids are in good hands.”

Slated to attend medical missions throughout 2020, the certified QA officers like Rodney and Rosa were ready to step into their new role and empower volunteer teams to continue delivering the highest quality of care possible.

But those plans were upended when the coronavirus pandemic began. Only two officers were able to attend their scheduled missions before Operation Smile’s decision to postpone all international travel.

As one of those two volunteers, Rodney witnessed the medical quality team’s vision come to life.

“There were a lot of great ideas that were brought forward by some volunteers during my last missions in Egypt,” Rodney said. “I reminded them that this organisation is always improving, and I love to hear their suggestions on process improvement and patient safety.”

Adapting to the pandemic, Bryan and his team now deliver online refresher courses that make sure the officers are prepared to reach their highest potential whenever it becomes safe to travel again.

But those courses weren’t the only component to transition online: Two additional QA officers received training and became credentialed through virtual training.

With a new dynamic, Bryan and his team worked diligently to create a virtual QA education course that aligned with the same goals and experiences as the in-person training.

The curriculum included informative presentations, questionnaires addressing specific concerns and a virtual fact-find of a local hospital.

Operating room nurse Amanda Stahlhut during a patient's operation. Photo courtesy of Amanda Stahlhut.

“An opportunity for me to contribute to those great efforts is an honour,” said Amanda Stahlhut, an operating room nurse who underwent the virtual training. “I pledge to not lose momentum or motivation with the current pandemic delays, knowing that this QA programme will transform how quality and safety is viewed and actioned.”

Even some volunteers like Rodney say that they are using their QA officer training to be better prepared for working on the frontline of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Especially when I’m putting on my personal protective equipment, I always have someone double check if I missed anything,” Rodney said. “I also practice good habits in my practice to better protect myself, my co-workers, patients, guests and family from contracting the virus, thus cultivating a culture of safety.”

The 13 officers, diversified by country as well as specialty, represent a multitude of positions including a surgeon, paediatrician, bio medical technician, two anaesthesiologists and various nursing specialties.

And as committed advocates for safety and care, the QA officers also embody Operation Smile’s unwavering drive to improve and evolve in order to meet the needs of every patient.

“We all make mistakes. We can evaluate our mistakes and see how we can improve on them,” Mamta said. “Increased efficiency and safety leads to better team morale and preparedness, which then leads to improved patient outcomes, improved patient satisfaction and better quality of care.”

Photo: Rohanna Mertens.

Overcoming Nutritional Barriers to Surgery in Ghana

Two-year-old Jocelyn during Operations Smile's 2017 medical mission in Koforidua, Ghana. Photo: Zute Lightfoot.
Two-year-old Jocelyn during Operations Smile's 2017 medical mission in Koforidua, Ghana. Photo: Zute Lightfoot.

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.

For patients like Jocelyn, widespread poverty affecting areas across Ghana presents challenges and a host of barriers that stand between them and a brighter future after surgery. Some of these barriers can also be the difference between life and death.

Malnutrition remains one of the most significant obstacles to receiving care, affecting children with cleft conditions, especially babies with cleft palate, in the early developmental stages of their lives.

Without timely medical intervention, patients confront challenges with breastfeeding, struggle to receive proper nourishment when it’s most critical and become more susceptible to infections and diseases.

“Challenges people in Ghana are facing: no access to nutritious foods, foods are too expensive,” said volunteer nutritionist Dede Kwadjo.

Volunteer nutritionist Dede Kwadjo poses for a photo at the patient shelter where she has been consulting with mothers of babies born with cleft conditions. Photo: Zute Lightfoot.

Due to the rate of Ghanaian children experiencing growth delays and being moderately to severely undernourished standing at a staggering 19 percent, improving access to nutrition and educating families is crucial.

With an increased risk and probability of complications during surgery, many hopeful families who arrive with their children to Operation Smile medical missions leave disappointed and upset after medical volunteers deemed their baby too unhealthy to receive surgical care.

And in Ghana, a country known for having widespread and deeply rooted social stigma surrounding cleft, many children endure lives filled with pain, living in a world of isolation and being fearful of harassment from peers, members of their communities and, sometimes, even their own families.

This is what Cynthia hoped to protect Jocelyn from when she made the choice to help her future adoptive daughter.

She never expected that her decision to pause at a bus stop and speak with the father of a child living with an unrepaired cleft lip would save a life let alone take her on a journey toward motherhood.

Jocelyn pictured with adoptive mother, Cynthia. Photo: Zute Lightfoot.

Hoping to help him find a solution for his 2-year-old daughter, Jocelyn, Cynthia told the father about Operation Smile Ghana and the surgical care it provides at no cost to families.

Cynthia soon learned that Jocelyn’s mother had abandoned the family, leaving Jocelyn in the care of her dad. Over time, she also began to notice that he didn’t seem to make his daughter’s needs a priority, and Cynthia became more troubled and suspicious.

To make sure that he followed through for the care of his daughter, Cynthia travelled with the family to the 2017 local medical mission in Koforidua. But after performing a comprehensive health evaluation, medical volunteers determined that it wasn’t safe for Jocelyn to receive surgery: She was too underweight and showed signs of malnutrition.

“With nutrition, I always say, ‘If someone isn’t well nourished, a lot of things don’t go well,’” Dede said. “Making sure that someone is nutritionally adequate is a basis for good living.”

After Jocelyn was admitted for a five-day stay in the paediatric ward during the mission, Cynthia refused to leave her side.

Cynthia was thrilled to learn that Jocelyn had been enrolled into Operation Smile Ghana’s nutrition programme. But her excitement was short lived once she was told that Jocelyn had missed the first – and second – month of the programme.

Repeatedly, the Operation Smile Ghana team called Jocelyn’s home, using every resource they had to reach the family and make sure Jocelyn received the care she desperately needed.

Cynthia knew the kind of life Jocelyn could have if she received surgery. But she also suspected what her future held if her health didn’t improve and she wasn’t cleared for surgery.

Following numerous failed attempts at trying to convince Jocelyn’s father to bring her to the site of nutrition programme, Cynthia’s initial worries and fears about Jocelyn’s health and well-being were realised, and it became clear that she needed to step in.

Assured that Jocelyn wouldn’t go back into the care of her birth mother, the father agreed that Cynthia could have sole custody and become the person in charge of taking over Jocelyn’s care.

It was only after Cynthia offered to become Jocelyn’s primary guardian that her journey back to health – and to receiving free surgery on her cleft lip – truly began.

Photo: Zute Lightfoot.
Photo: Zute Lightfoot.

To help the overwhelming number of children suffering in the country, Operation Smile Ghana’s nutrition programme is conducted year-round in five regions across the country. The programme offers ongoing educational support and monthly intervention assessments to track patients’ development.

Ready-to-use therapeutic food (RUTF), a nutritive peanut paste; formula, and cereal mixes are given to patients whose nutritional deficiencies prevented them from passing their comprehensive health evaluation. Since 2015, Operation Smile has provided RUTF to malnourished patients living in the country. And today, during the COVID-19 pandemic, this support is critically needed. While surgeries are postponed, our team in Ghana is distributing RUTF to patients who need it so they can continue growing strong and healthy.

Dede Kwadjo speaks with Aba, mother of 11-month-old Moses, during screening for Operation Smile Ghana's first local mission in Koforidua. Photo: Zute Lightfoot.

For Dede, the individual education and empowerment consultations she offers to families are just as important as the care she delivers to the children.

“We train our mothers to use what they have to create nutritious food for their children. We ask what they have available: fish, beans, banana. Then, we work with them to create a practical solution, teaching them how to help their child,” Dede said.

Eleven-month-old Moses being fed by his mother, Aba, while waiting for patient announcement during an Operation Smile Ghana medical mission. Photo: Zute Lightfoot.
Eleven-month-old Moses being fed by his mother, Aba, while waiting for patient announcement during an Operation Smile Ghana medical mission. Photo: Zute Lightfoot.

Another one of Dede’s patients is Moses.

At the same 2017 local mission conducted by all Ghanaian volunteers, the 9-month-old arrived in dire need of nutritional intervention.

For Aba, Moses’ mother, the personalised counselling and support she received from Dede throughout the nutrition programme constantly motivated her to never give up.

Despite her son’s recurring respiratory infections and low weight, Aba remained committed to the programme and became more hopeful as she began to see positive changes in Moses’ health. It was her perseverance and empowerment from Dede that led to Moses passing his comprehensive health evaluation and receiving cleft lip surgery.

While malnutrition continues to prevent babies and children from undergoing surgery at the ideal time, support from mothers like Aba, education from volunteers like Dede and unrelenting commitment from loving people like Cynthia are forces that can change the course of a child’s future.

“If you can empower somebody with right choices to prevent the person lacking something as basic as getting the right food and the right proportion at the right time, that will go a long way actually help the person to have a better quality of life,” Dede said. “I’m so passionate about it.”

Moses and Aba after his cleft lip surgery. Photo: Zute Lightfoot.

Voices From the Frontline: Q&A with Nurse Doreenlove Serwah

Clinical coordinators Doreenlove Serwah, right, and Sally Herman during screening on the first day of an Operation Smile Ghana local mission in 2018. Photo: Zute Lightfoot.

The impact of the coronavirus varies from country to country, but the heroism that nurses like Doreenlove Serwah have while delivering care in their communities is universal.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Doreenlove safeguarded the success of Operation Smile medical missions in Ghana as a volunteer clinical coordinator. Today, she’s serving another vital role as the nursing lead at a local hospital, providing life-saving care to patients as well as educating her team of health workers on the necessary safety protocols that equip them with the skills and knowledge to handle the demands brought on by the virus.

“A lot of our nursing knowledge is now being channelled towards education,” Doreenlove said. “With education comes correcting misconceptions, alleviating anxiety and giving reassurance and general psychosocial counselling.”

As a Ghanaian nurse, Doreenlove relies on the courage and collaboration of her team in addition to her experience with Operation Smile to diligently fight this crisis head-on.

“My country, like many others globally, is facing the COVID-19 pandemic with the necessary urgency required,” Doreenlove said. “It’s a stressful time for everyone, especially healthcare workers, but we’re all doing the best that we can.”

We recently sat down with Doreenlove to hear more about the demands of being a nurse in a resource-limited country like Ghana and what inspires her to continue searching for hope despite the limitations she and her fellow medical professionals are facing.

Photo: Zute Lightfoot.

Q: With the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, what is the current environment like in Ghana? In what ways have you seen the coronavirus affect families living in your country? 

A: “The current environment is quite tense. Closely watching havoc being created in even better resourced environments and gradually watching our in-country cases rising. Public education on prevention measures have, however, gained grounds, and treatment centres are slowly taking shape in anticipation of surges. I daresay we are cautiously optimistic for the future.

“With the implementation of social distancing protocols nationwide and limited lockdown in some major urban centres, life as we knew it has come to a standstill. Schools are not in session, and a lot of economic income-generating activities have been suspended. In a way, I believe this has caused nuclear families to possibly bond better despite the challenges as they spend more time together, too.”

Q: What has been your role in response to this challenging time? 

A: “As a nurse leader in my unit, I’ve been educating the nurses and other health workers on the need to adhere to the precautionary measures put in place by the World Health Organization to help combat the COVID-19 pandemic. Core topics include infection prevention and control practices such as hand and personal hygiene, proper ways of putting on and taking off personal protective equipment, proper cleaning and decontamination protocols as well as education on social distancing.

“In the managerial aspect, now more than before, is proper stock taking and procurement which is essential in the face of wide spread shortages to eliminate all waste while still ensuring adequate supply at all times. Apart from these, I’ve had to make changes in ward routines as well as prepare the ward in general should we have a COVID-19 suspected case since I work in paediatric emergency and its direct entry for patients without them having to go through all the usual processes.”

Q: What limitations have you and your other medical professionals faced? 

A: “Major limitations we have faced are having fairly little knowledge on the COVID-19 virus, widespread misconceptions, exaggerated fear and panic gripping both general population and health workers alike, and limited resources, especially with regards to personal protective equipment.

“In my country, there are limited testing centres. This means waiting a little longer than usual to receive results on the status of patients. Also, staff strength is sometimes diminished when a staff member has to self-isolate while waiting for results.”

Q: What have you learned from being involved with Operation Smile that’s helped prepare you for responding to COVID-19? 

A: “Involvement with Operation Smile has given me confidence in my leadership abilities, as I have clinically coordinated missions. I believe it has made me a more effective team player.

“The numerous educational sessions I’ve conducted for my nurses before, during and after missions have also given me insight to their general strengths and weaknesses, how to deliver information better, mentor efficiently, motivate adequately and manage better.”

Q: In light of this pandemic, why do you feel it’s so important to recognise nurses and the role they serve in the medical field? 

A: “The pandemic and arising issues make it very apparent the role nurses play. We constitute a large workforce; dare I say the largest proportion in the health sector. We tend to have more interaction time with our patients, and this enables them to gain our trust and communicate more openly with us, allowing for us to counsel, educate and care for them. Our enhanced contact time and skills also allow us to make valuable observations and contributions to their health care planning.”

Q: It’s a very stressful time in your country and around the world right now. How are you doing, personally, with the impact this virus has placed on you?

A: “As a nurse, wife to a doctor and mother of two kids, I’ve had to place the care of my kids in the hands of my mother since my husband and I have to spend extra hours to help in providing services during this crisis. Also, in order not to take chances with the possibility of a cross infection from us to our kids, it has become prudent that they stay away from us for this period. We miss them and the normal family bonding we used to have.”

Q: What motivates you to continue working to provide care during this difficult time in Ghana? 

A: “Just the fact that I’m well prepared by my training and prior experiences, and the fact that society is looking up to me to lead in this difficult time keeps me continuing what I do.

“The population has a lot of respect and expectations of me, and that alone challenges me to deliver.”

Photo: Zute Lightfoot.

A Hands-On Approach to Care

Medical volunteers from Operation Smiles Future of Smiles mission in Durgapur, India, with their names written in Bengali on their arms. The mission featured volunteers from 12 different countries all working together to provide safe surgical care. Photo: Nicholas Nottage.

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 West Bengal, India, a young boy and his family travelled to a strange place in hopes of receiving a surgery that would change his life.  

Waiting in line for his name to be called, Astik noticed his grandmother, Rutipa, had a nervous expression on her face — and he mirrored it. When he looked ahead, he heard unfamiliar people speaking a language he didn’t understand.

Before he knew it, nurses with stark-white gloved hands were examining his cleft lip.

For Astik and many more patients like him around the world, receiving treatment at an Operation Smile medical mission marks the first time they’ve received care from doctors and nurses.

To make this new experience as comfortable as possible, the medical volunteer team at the site in Durgapur, India, took a hands-on approach: playing with gloves.

And thanks to the support from Ansell, a global healthcare company, there are always plenty in supply at Operation Smile medical missions. With one of its global headquarters in Melbourne, Australia, Ansell is a world leader in providing superior health and safety protection solutions that enhance human wellbeing. The company has partnered with Operation Smile since 2016 and routinely provides protective gloves for medical missions in India and around the world.

Operation Smile volunteer nurse Lora Edwards said this approach is similar to the way child life specialists calm children before surgery by slow exposure to operating equipment through play.

“Before I start working with a patient, I’ll blow up a glove and decorate it,” Lora said. “I turn the gloves into fish, let the child paint the nails or draw faces on the gloves.”

Lora said she does this before she begins touching a patient’s face to help them become more comfortable with the feel of the glove and grow more at ease with the medical process.

Through partnering with Operation Smile, Ansell help create a safer and more protected world by routinely providing gloves for medical missions in India and around the world.

Additionally, Ansell donates gloves to Operation Smile’s cleft centre in Durgapur, where they are stored in the warehouse. The donated gloves are either used at the cleft centre or are distributed to various mission sites across the country. Any gloves leftover from missions are returned to the cleft centre to ensure that they never go to waste.

Boxes of Ansell gloves waiting to be shipped to an upcoming medical mission in India. Photo: Nicholas Nottage.

According to Operation Smile India’s executive director, Abhishek Sengupta, these gloves are a hot commodity among the volunteers.

“They (Ansell gloves) are the only gloves the surgeons and nurses request,” Abhishek said.

The quarterly shipments of gloves are frequently marked on the volunteers’ calendars, he said, so they know when to expect them.

Dr. Alexis Rothermel, a surgical resident, said, “The gloves definitely allowed me to feel very comfortable while providing care to the patients but did not impede my dexterity while operating.”

Dr. Alexis Rothermel performing surgery with the help and supervision of cleft surgeon from India Dr. Gaurav Deshpandey. Photo: Nicholas Nottage.

Wearing gloves is critical for the safety of both the patients and medical professionals.

Karen Allen, an Operation Smile volunteer nurse on her second medical mission, fully grasps the importance and value of working with high-quality gloves.

“Everyone deserves to be healthy and safe in their workplace, and having reliable gloves available — despite working in countries that may not have the same resources — is crucial to making the medical volunteers feel comfortable and relaxed. I have used Ansell gloves before and always appreciate my chances to use them.”

Volunteer nurse Karen Allen teaches one of the patients how to blow bubbles during screening day. Photo: Nicholas Nottage.

While she spoke, Karen grabbed the glove on her hand by the bottom and pulled on the end, mimicking how she first slid them on.

“If I had done that with the gloves I use back home, my fingers would have come through the end and the bottom would have ripped,” she said.

Since her job requires her to wear gloves often, she admires how the Ansell gloves never leave her hands sore after a long day’s work.

“These gloves always meet my expectations when I have the opportunity to use them,” Karen said.

The site in Durgapur is shared with a medical college, and several of the nurses in training assisted during the medical mission process. Karen’s proper use of the gloves “sets a good example to the student nurses as well.”

Gloves are an integral part of every step of the medical mission process. Fortunately, with Ansell’s generous support, Operation Smile can ensure patient safety throughout its medical missions — and continue to bring them some comfort, too, in the form of a glove-shaped fish.

Karen posing with some of the student nurses who assisted during the Future of Smiles mission at the Durgapur care centre. Photo: Akash Samanta.

The Road to Ramata’s Smile

Editor’s note: We teamed up with the storytelling group Cliff Co. to create Love Always Prevails, the hybrid documentary film about Ramata’s and Mariana’s Operation Smile journey, featured above. Click here for a behind-the-scenes look at the production of the film with videographer Jacob Watson of Cliff Co.

While Ghana offers some of Africa’s most beautiful landscapes, it also suffers from a lack of adequate infrastructure, health care services and economic opportunities, resulting in some of the world’s most significant barriers to safe surgical care for its citizens.

It also means rough roads lead from the rural community of Assin Praso to the historic city of Cape Coast.

Though the physical condition of the highways is the same for all who travel between the two cities, the round trips made by Mariana and her daughter, Ramata, were among the most challenging.

Ramata was born with a cleft lip and a cleft palate. Mariana was determined to access safe surgical care to repair her 4-year-old daughter’s condition.

Five times, Mariana raised enough money for bus fare and took Ramata to Cape Coast in search of a free surgical option. Five times, the return trip was made all the rockier by heartbreak.

Each time doctors assessed Ramata’s health, she was either anaemic or too underweight to receive safe surgery. Even if she would have been deemed healthy enough for surgery, she had no way of being able to afford its cost.

Ramata with her mother, Mariana. Photo: Margherita Mirabella.

Disappointed but undeterred, Mariana remained vigilant about finding care for Ramata despite her limited resources — she earns a meagre living carrying water containers and gathering firewood for her neighbours. When Mariana met a non-medical volunteer from Operation Smile Ghana who was conducting an awareness campaign in Assin Praso, the lives of the family would change forever.

At first, Mariana didn’t believe that the surgeries Ramata needed would be free when she called Clement Ofosuhemeng, the patient coordinator for Operation Smile Ghana, to learn more about the organisation and its work. He assured Mariana that there would be no cost for any procedures needed to repair Ramata’s cleft condition and that Operation Smile would provide a bus to take patients from the Assin Praso area to the next medical mission in Cape Coast.

After Mariana and Ramata made the three-hour trek back to Cape Coast for the Operation Smile medical mission, yet another roadblock diverted Ramata away from care for a staggering sixth time. Ramata had passed her comprehensive health assessment and was approved for cleft lip surgery when she contracted malaria — a major health scare for the young patient in its own right.

While Ghana offers some of Africa’s most beautiful landscapes, it also suffers from a critical lack of adequate infrastructure, health care services and economic opportunities, resulting in some of the world’s most significant barriers to safe surgical care for its citizens. Our vision of improving patients’ health and dignity through safe surgery is backed by the idea that no one deserves to live with the burden of a cleft condition. Photo: Margherita Mirabella

Fortunately, Ramata survived her bout with malaria and returned to good health as she and her mother looked forward to the next Operation Smile medical mission in the eastern city of Ho. It would be here that she would receive the life-changing procedure which had proved to be so elusive.

In the months leading up to the Ho medical mission, Ramata started attending kindergarten and immediately developed an affinity for school and learning. She also experienced bullying from some of her classmates while others would stare at her cleft lip and shun her. The teasing and isolation drove Ramata to tears.

Photo: Margherita Mirabella.

Mariana also suffered social hardships after Ramata was born. As her family offered little, if any, emotional support, she became the target of insults and blame from some of her neighbours for having birthed a child with a cleft condition. While these words infuriated Mariana, they also hardened her resolve to find a surgical solution for her daughter — to give her the chance to pursue an education without it being derailed by cruel treatment from her peers.

Again, Ramata and Mariana boarded the Operation Smile bus and made the 10-hour trip from Assin Praso to Ho. Again, she was cleared for surgery after her patient health assessment, but this time made it to the operating room without further complications and received surgery to repair her cleft lip.

Photo: Margherita Mirabella.

When Mariana saw Ramata for the first time after surgery, she was overjoyed by the fact that her daughter would look like all the other children in their community.

Mariana marvelled at the care and attention Ramata received during the missions and was amazed by the love and care the volunteers showed the patients and their families. She said that she is happy to share Ramata’s story with everyone she meets and would tell other mothers in her community who give birth to children with cleft conditions about Operation Smile’s work in Ghana so they can avoid the anguish and frustration that she experienced in searching exhaustively for safe surgical care for her daughter.

Finally, Ramata truly began her journey toward healing. She returned to Ho twice over the following year to receive procedures at Operation Smile medical missions to repair her cleft palate.

Four-year-old Ramata. Photo: Margherita Mirabella.

In 2019, Operation Smile returned to Ramata’s home in Assin Praso to see how life has improved for her and Mariana.

Since receiving her final cleft palate surgery in 2016, Ramata has developed into an outgoing young girl who is full of energy and enjoys playing with her newfound group of friends from the neighbourhood.

Eight-year-old Ramata poses for a photo with friends from her village. Photo: Zute Lightfoot.

No longer subject to the harmful bullying and teasing from some of her classmates, Ramata thrives in school and in life.

Today, she’s a confident and competitive student who loves to learn and is oftentimes the first student to raise her hand during class when the teacher asks a question.

Photo: Zute Lightfoot.

While the journey to finding care for Ramata was challenging and full of unforeseen obstacles, the love Mariana has for her daughter never allowed her to lose hope.

And today, that love only continues to deepen as Mariana watches Ramata grow into an enthusiastic, hard-working and joyful young girl with a beautiful heart and a beautiful smile.

Photo: Zute Lightfoot.

After a Rigorous Journey, This Venezuelan Family Finds Solace in Brazil

Three-month-old Elizabeth surrounded by her mother, Yelisbeth, her father, Yoel, and her siblings. Photo: Carla Formanek.

Venezuela’s economic and political chaos has not only deterred tourists from visiting the region, but has led to more than 4.5 million residents seeking refuge in neighbouring nations as of February 2020.

From Venezuela to Iquitos, Peru

Yoel, his wife, Yelisbeth, and their four daughters are one of the families who left their home, friends and jobs behind in search of a better life.

While Yelisbeth and Yoel’s decision to leave Venezuela was promoted by their desire to find a safe place to raise their children, they were also looking for something they struggled to find in their home country – surgery for their 3-month-old daughter, Elizabeth.

Elizabeth was born with a cleft condition and a limb difference affecting her left hand.

It was only after arriving in Iquitos, Peru, that the family connected with a man who informed them about Operation Smile and the free surgeries it provides for children like Elizabeth.

Grasping on to the opportunity to help his daughter, Yoel contacted the organisation’s team based in Peru, only to learn that the solution would remain out of reach: The next medical mission was scheduled to take place in Lima, which was very far from where his family had settled.

In an attempt to prevent his family from enduring the harsh travel distance, Yoel reached out to Operation Smile Brazil.

After being informed that the family was Venezuelan, the organisation encouraged them to seek safe surgery from the foundation in his native country. But with such tumultuous times impacting the country and foundation, there weren’t missions scheduled for any upcoming dates.

Despite the continuous challenges preventing him and his family from settling peacefully in the new country, Yoel found strength to persevere for the people he loves and cherishes most in this world.

Photo: Carla Formanek.

While unsure of what the outcome would be, Yoel reached out to Operation Smile Brazil once again. He ended the call feeling more hopeful than ever.

The team told Yoel that, in a month and a half, a medical mission was taking place in Porto Velho, which was more than 650 miles away.

Over the radio, Yoel broadcasted Elizabeth’s story and his plans to travel to Brazil in order to find her the care she needs.

Moved by the family’s story and resilience, an owner of a boat company offered them tickets to board his boat and travel down the Amazon River to Santa Rosa de Yavarí, the last city before the Brazilian border.

This initiated the first step of the long and challenging journey that stood between Elizabeth and the care that could change her life forever.

From Iquitos to Tabatinga, Brazil 

It took the family nearly three days to reach Brazil.

Traveling to Tabatinga, an Amazonian city located on the other side of the border, the family was once again surprised and touched by the compassion shown to them along the way.

“We had the help of a lot of people,” Yoel recalled. “People we had never seen gave us food and lodging.”

From Tabatinga to Manaus, Brazil 

Landing in Tabatinga, the family crossed paths with a woman named Cristiana, who generously offered them lodging and food.

Yelisbeth and Yoel depended on the meagre income they made from selling chocolates and some of their last possessions they still had with them.

More than 550 miles away from the medical mission, the family estimated that the next stretch of their trip would cost almost three times the amount of money they had at the time.

Photo: Carla Formanek.

But knowing that their dream of finding Elizabeth surgery was continuously moving closer within their reach, the entire family once again made incredible sacrifices to earn money: They left the dog that had accompanied them at Cristiana’s house, sold their fridge and deserted one of their tuk tuks, a motorised tricycle, leaving the six of them to share one together.

After almost four days of travel, everyone arrived safely in the Amazonian capital.

It was after talking to truckers and learning more about road conditions that Yoel set their departure date.

“We said, ‘Let’s go tomorrow!’ We set the alarm for three in the morning and left,” he said.

From Manaus to Porto Velho, Brazil 

Over the course of the day, the smooth paved road that the family had become accustomed to gave way to dirt and loose gravel.

“It was an infinite line to the horizon. And on the side of the road, we only saw forest,” Yoel said. “We traveled for miles without going through any communities.”

But soon, the seemingly endless dusty roads transitioned into water after they arrived at the Igapó-Açu River located in northwestern Brazil.

While receiving passage across the river on a ferry brought temporary relief to the family, Yoel knew that they still had a long way to go before reaching the mission site in Porto Velho, which was nearly 350 miles away.

After departing from the ferry, Yelisbeth, Yoel and their children were met with more sun, heat and dust as they continued on their journey.

With exhaustion weighing on the entire family, they stopped and took a break on the side of the road. They were once again met with kindness. Witnessing Yoel signal from the road, a truck driver slowed to a halt and offered to take the family to Porto Velho in exchange for small price.

Yelisbeth said that she still remembers the heady smell of petrol from the cart. And at night, when the driver would stop to rest after long hours of traveling, the family was reminded that they weren’t out of danger with being in such proximity of the Amazon Rainforest.

“We heard loud noises from the woods, and, suddenly, I saw pairs of bright eyes come out of the plants. They were jaguars,” Yoel said. “I could only think about the girls. They were my only concern.”

Conjuring up the last remaining strength they had, the family prevailed and traveled the final distance to the hospital, arriving the day before the mission was scheduled to start.

Elizabeth in the care of Operation Smile Brazil medical volunteers. Photo: Carla Formanek.

Elizabeth and her family were met with compassion from the Operation Smile Brazil medical team. And after Elizabeth passed her comprehensive health evaluation, the volunteers and staff struggled to hold back tears of joy when they informed Yoel and Yelisbeth that she was selected for surgery.

“It was a lot of sacrifice, but when we arrived here, we didn’t imagine that we would be received with such affection and love,” Yoel said.

He even said that the family hopes to make Brazil their forever home after the treatment they received from the people dedicated to the organisation.

Seeing Elizabeth’s beautiful new smile, Yelisbeth and Yoel knew that every sacrifice they made and every mile they traveled to get to this moment had been worth it.

Yelisbeth gazes in amazement at Elizabeth's new smile after surgery. Photo: Carla Formanek.
Yelisbeth gazes in amazement at Elizabeth's new smile after surgery. Photo: Carla Formanek.

This Aunt’s Love for Her Nephew Prevails

Felicia and her adoptive son, Kelvin, her biological nephew. Photo: Laura Gonzalez.

Editor’s note: This is the story of Kelvin, a 1-year-old boy from Ghana who received cleft lip surgery from Operation Smile in November 2019 – the month before his first birthday. Kelvin is the baby who portrays Ramata in the hybrid documentary film “Love Always Prevails,” which tells the story of Ramata’s mother, Mariana, and how she persevered through incredible hardships to ensure that her daughter received the surgery she deserved. Hybrid documentary films are created in a unique way, as a true story is scripted and filmed in direct collaboration with the people who lived the reality. We believe that this style of storytelling creates an emotional and intimate opportunity for the viewer to connect directly with our patients’ stories. We also worked in close collaboration with Felicia, Kelvin’s adoptive mother, who enthusiastically agreed to have her child play this role, so that Operation Smile can reach and treat more patients like Kelvin all around the world. We are very grateful and humbled to work with these families and appreciate their determination and compassion wholeheartedly.

Ramata, left, and Mariana spend time with Kelvin and Felicia during the filming of "Love Always Prevails." Photo: Zute Lightfoot.

A precious gift to her parents, Kelvin was born on Christmas Eve 2018.

But in Ghana, where he was born, the stigma surrounding cleft conditions is severe and deeply rooted; many people believe that babies born with cleft aren’t worthy of love.

This included Kelvin’s biological parents.

“My younger sister said she didn’t want a baby with a cleft, so she just ran away,” said Felicia, Kelvin’s aunt.

After her sister abandoned Kelvin, Felicia decided to adopt her nephew. She’s been raising him as her own son ever since.

“There was no one to take care of him, and I couldn’t leave him to die,” she said.

Felicia had never seen anyone with a cleft condition before. And although she didn’t know if a solution was out there, Felicia refused to walk away like her sister did.

While Felicia loves Kelvin, her life became very difficult after she made the decision to adopt him. She used to make a living as a trader, selling containers of water in the market.

“Now that I have this baby, I can no longer go to the market,” Felicia said. “I have to strap him to my back, and as soon as people see what he looks like, they don’t want to buy anything from me anymore. I have to beg people for money so I can feed him.”

Felicia felt relief and happiness when she learned that Operation Smile Ghana provides safe surgical care for patients like Kelvin. She saw an interview of patient coordinator Clement Ofosuhemeng on a national news broadcast and immediately called him to begin Kelvin’s care journey.

They traveled to Ho in April 2019 with the hopes that he would receive surgery from an Operation Smile medical mission. But after performing a comprehensive health evaluation, medical volunteers determined that Kelvin couldn’t be scheduled for surgery because he exhibited signs of malnourishment in addition to having contracted a cold.

“I don’t like to take him outside because when I do, he gets sick. He’s always sick,” Felicia said. “I don’t have money, so when I run out of food for Kelvin, I have to go out and ask people for it. I need someone to help me take care of him.”

Ramata holds Kelvin as he portrays Ramata as a baby during the filming of "Love Always Prevails" while Felicia watches in the background. Photo: Zute Lightfoot.

Through increasing education and promoting good health, Operation Smile Ghana aims to reduce malnutrition and illness as barriers preventing children from receiving safe surgery.

Before Felicia and Kelvin left the patient shelter to return home, volunteer dietitian Dede Kwadjo, who runs the nutrition programme for Operation Smile Ghana, evaluated Kelvin and gave Felicia helpful advice about the types of food that Kelvin needs to eat in order for him to become healthy enough for safe surgery.

“We train our mothers to use what they have to create nutritious food for their children. We ask what they have available: fish, beans, banana. Then, we work with them to create a practical solution, teaching them how to help their child,” Dede said.

“I will feed him well so he can gain weight and grow stronger,” Felicia said.

Felicia hasn’t heard from her sister since she left Kelvin shortly after his birth. She has no idea where she is. But after learning that Kelvin couldn’t receive surgery yet, Felicia refused to give up hope.

In August 2019, Felicia and Kelvin attended a mission in Cape Coast that was conducted entirely of Ghanaian medical volunteers, but again, they left heartbroken: Kelvin developed a cough before his medical evaluation, so he was unable to receive surgery.

Finally, in November 2019, Felicia and Kelvin traveled to Koforidua in another attempt at getting him the surgery that he needs and deserves. This time, Kelvin was deemed healthy and received cleft lip surgery.

Kelvin’s surgery came within the first year of his life, which is the best time for a baby to receive a cleft lip surgery.

Felicia said that she hopes to spread the word about the work that Operation Smile Ghana is accomplishing in the country.

“If I see someone else with a cleft, I will advise them and encourage them and ensure them that they should come and be seen by the doctors at Operation Smile.”

Skilled at Heart

Editor’s Note: In Ethiopia, Operation Smile is helping to strengthen the country’s health system through specialised training and education programmes while continuing to provide patients with world-class levels of surgical care. This story is the second of a four-part series.

Operation Smile’s Global Standards of Care requires that all nursing volunteers are certified in Basic Life Support (BLS), a course which teaches the fundamentals of cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR).

That standard exists for good reason – cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death worldwide, killing more than 17 million people every year. According to the American Heart Association (AHA), for every minute CPR is delayed to a victim of cardiac arrest, his or her chances of survival decreases by 10 percent.

In many low-and-middle-income countries, including Ethiopia, knowledge of these life-saving skills is not widespread – even among medical professionals. In response to this dire educational need, Operation Smile is committed to offering AHA training programmes in the countries where it works. These life-saving certifications not only improve patient safety at our medical mission sites, but also strengthen health systems in the trainees’ communities for the long term.

The impact of these programmes is immense. Of students surveyed who completed Operation Smile AHA courses, 84.4 percent of respondents said that principles taught in their courses changed policies or procedures in their home countries or hospitals. An even greater majority of respondents, 96.5 percent, said that the courses changed how they reacted to an emergency situation.

More than 84 percent said they have already used skills learned in the courses to save a life.

We recently caught up with long-time Operation Smile nursing volunteer Florence Mangula of Kenya about her experiences both as a student and instructor of BLS and Paediatric Advanced Life Support (PALS) courses. Affectionately called “Mama Africa” by the Operation Smile medical volunteer community, the intensive care unit nurse has become a fixture in spreading this life-saving knowledge throughout Sub-Saharan Africa.

What inspired you to become a nurse?

As a young girl, I used to get recurrent tonsillitis. I was afraid of injections, so my mother would have to force me to go to the nearest health centre for treatment. Every time I went, I saw a nurse in a clean white uniform, shoes, cap and dress. I was fascinated by her elegant walk, confidence and the passion she had for her work. She would greet me with a smile and say, “My sweet pie, sorry you are back!” As I grew older, I kept telling myself that I want to be like that nurse – compassionate with a caring attitude and empathy for human beings. She would always say, “I’m sorry, but want you to be well.” To this day, I walk with my head up, with confidence, and treat my clients with care and compassion. I love this! Thanks to her for being a role model of good nursing, for I think I have also inspired many others to become nurses.

What kind of experience did you have with BLS/PALS before receiving training from Operation Smile?

I’m an ICU nurse and I thought all nurses were trained in emergency life-saving techniques and CPR. When I received training from Operation Smile, I realised many nurses in my region didn’t have those skills – many feared to tend to emergencies and feared to take the course, which I found disappointing. I’m thankful that Operation Smile offers training in both BLS and PALS, as anyone who completes these trainings can save lives in their communities.

As a student, what did it mean to you to learn these skills?

I learned these skills to improve my performance and become more competent in CPR. In fact, the PALS training was of great help. It stimulated my critical thinking and made me evaluate the care I gave to my patients, as it involves equipment, drug administration and team dynamics.

How does Operation Smile select its AHA course instructors?

Operation Smile’s Global Standards of Care requires students to pass their exams with a score above 84 percent to become certified. Those who score over 92 percent are eligible to become instructors. Also, the student must pass in the skill station, where one is examined on competence. Then, the students must complete “training of trainers” course to become certified as an instructor.

As a student, what did it mean to you to learn these skills?

I learned these skills to improve my performance and become more competent in CPR. In fact, the PALS training was of great help. It stimulated my critical thinking and made me evaluate the care I gave to my patients, as it involves equipment, drug administration and team dynamics.

How does Operation Smile select its AHA course instructors?

Operation Smile’s Global Standards of Care requires students to pass their exams with a score above 84 percent to become certified. Those who score over 92 percent are eligible to become instructors. Also, the student must pass in the skill station, where one is examined on competence. Then, the students must complete “training of trainers” course to become certified as an instructor.

This Family’s Message of Thanks

Seven-month-old Yi Miang and his mom, Lu Gong’e, during Operation Smile China’s 2016 medical mission to Lincang. Photo: Zute Lightfoot.

No prenatal check-up or ultrasound Lu Gong’e received indicated that the lives of her and her husband, Tian Shun, would soon change forever.

With healthy 6-year-old twins at home, Lu Gong’e didn’t anticipate that her pregnancy would be any different with her son, Yi Miang.

But on the day that Lu Gong’e and Tian Shun believed would be one of the happiest of their lives, the couple was confronted with heartbreak and shock.

Yi Miang was born with a cleft lip and palate.

Doctors at the hospital didn’t explain the cause of Yi Miang’s cleft. They simply said that surgery was possible but not at that hospital.

In that moment, Lu Gong’e’s mind filled with seemingly unanswerable questions and thoughts of uncertainty as she held her baby boy in her arms.

“How is this possible?”

Photo: Zute Lightfoot.
Photo: Zute Lightfoot.

Looking at their son, Tian Shun and Lu Gong’e couldn’t understand how one child could be born with a cleft condition while their twin girls were born perfectly healthy.

After the family arrived back home, some members of their community blamed them, believing that they had done something to cause Yi Miang’s cleft clip. Lu Gong’e and Tian Shun faced stigmatisation and judgement from those who lacked proper knowledge on the causes of cleft conditions, which can be the result of environmental or hereditary factors.

Filled with love for Yi Miang, Lu Gong’e didn’t pay mind to the teasing or harmful comments.

Instead, Tian Shun and Lu Gong’e immediately sought out other hospitals in the area, tirelessly looking for a specialist with the skills and training to help Yi Miang. But even after months of searching, they remained without a solution.

Then one day, a representative from Operation Smile China visited their village and shared information that changed everything.

Tian Shun and Lu Gong’e learned that the organisation specialises in cleft lip and cleft palate repairs. They were also informed that an upcoming medical mission was taking place in Lincang, where Yi Miang could receive safe surgery at no cost to them.

Finally, the solution they’d searched for since Yi Miang’s birth was in sight.

“When I heard there was a mission, I was very excited,” Lu Gong’e said. “I travelled a whole day to the hospital, and my heart is full of happiness.”

Lu Gong’e and 7-month-old Yi Miang travelled 20 hours by bus to reach Lincang. While she was aware that cleft conditions existed, what Lu Gong’e saw upon arrival shocked her.

Hundreds of families with children affected by cleft conditions had travelled to the mission site just as her and Yi Miang had. Until then, she had no idea that one in 500-750 babies are born with cleft conditions.

Patient safety is at the forefront of every Operation Smile mission. To ensure that Yi Miang was healthy enough to undergo surgery, medical volunteers performed a comprehensive health evaluation, checking his blood pressure and other vitals before clearing him for surgery.

Volunteer pediatrician Dr. Elena Belonogova from Russia examines Yi Miang during screening day. Photo: Zute Lightfoot.

Lu Gong’e was thrilled when Operation Smile China volunteers placed Yi Miang on the surgical schedule. But at the same time, envisioning her son receiving surgery on his cleft lip scared her.

When Yi Miang entered the operating room, Lu Gong’e patiently sat in the waiting room, clutching his small jacket with tears falling down her cheeks.

A short time later, her worry turned into tears of happiness when Lu Gong’e reunited with Yi Miang and saw his beautiful new smile.

Photo: Zute Lightfoot.
Photo: Zute Lightfoot.

Tian Shun and Lu Gong’e were overcome with relief at their son’s transformation. Sitting by Yi Miang’s side as he rested after surgery, they knew that they would return to a future mission so Operation Smile China could repair their son’s cleft palate.

Before leaving the mission, Lu Gong’e and members of the volunteer medical team shared a beautiful moment when she told them that she couldn’t wait to show Yi Miang all of the pictures she’d taken during the mission. She wanted her son to see the faces of all the people who helped give him a brighter future.

Five months later, after traveling 10 hours to the 2017 medical mission in Dafang, Tian Shun, Lu Gong’e and Yi Miang reunited with the Operation Smile China team.

People at the mission described Yi Miang as a happy, outgoing 1-year-old who loves to laugh. Medical volunteers were delighted to announce that he was cleared to receive palate surgery.

“Before the first surgery, I was very nervous,” Lu Gong’e said. “But the surgery was so successful. I’m very confident about this surgery, and my heart is calm.”

Photo: Zute Lightfoot.

As Lu Gong’e and Tian Shun waited for Operation Smile China’s medical team to perform surgery on Yi Miang’s cleft palate, they wrote a letter thanking the doctors, nurses and volunteers who’d helped change their lives.

The letter has been translated from Mandarin below:

“First of all, I would like to convey my appreciation to this mission. And I want to thank all of the staff and volunteers from this mission.

Go team!

The welcome that everyone showed to my child before surgery really touched me, and I wish to show my appreciation to every single one of you for the concern and care you gave to my child.

Everyone here smiles so brightly. A smile can really relax people, and these smiles make me feel that there is nothing to worry about and to be calm and stress free.

Now, I’m outside of the operating room waiting for a perfect outcome.

My thoughts are that I wish that my baby will grow up to be a person like you and be able to convey your love to more people and society in general.

When Yi Miang grows up, I’ll tell him everything that happened at the mission. I’ll show him photos from the mission so that he will know what he received today.

This is not an easy task as so many people contributed to his health. I want him to be thankful to every single one of you.”

One-year-old Yi Miang poses for a photo with his parents, Lu Gong’e and Tian Shun, during Operation Smile China’s 2017 medical mission in Dafang. Photo: Zute Lightfoot.

A Father’s Promise Fulfilled

Antonia Samia, 19 years old, in October 2016. Photo: Marc Ascher.

Along a dusty roadside in the state of Ceará in northern Brazil, Antonia Samia sips a cold drink on a hot day at the local coconut stand with her father and sister.

The area has been stricken by a drought spanning more than five years and the scorching wind whips around the dust, which covers everything and everyone in a fine layer.

Life is hard for many in this desolate, arid region of a nation better known for lush rainforests, the mighty Amazon River and the sprawling cityscapes of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. Like the other farmers in the area, Antonia’s father, Iranildo, has had to cope with the effects of the lengthy drought. In times like these, he can only grow enough food to feed his large family. Even when more favorable conditions prevailed, Iranildo earned a low and inconsistent income selling surplus corn, beans and cassava.

Photo: Marc Ascher.

On this day, the family trio laugh and enjoy the time with one another as they reminisce about the past. Antonia’s newlywed husband, Alan, works at the coconut stand and the upbeat 19-year-old beams with a wide, loving smile when their eyes meet. In precious moments like these, it’s nearly impossible to imagine a time when there wasn’t much that made Antonia smile.

Antonia, her father Iranildo and her sister, Samily. Photo: Marc Ascher.
Antonia, her father Iranildo and her sister, Samily. Photo: Marc Ascher.
Antonia and her husband, Alan. Photo: Marc Ascher.
Antonia and her husband, Alan. Photo: Marc Ascher.

That time was 11 years ago, before her cleft lip was repaired by Operation Smile Brazil.

Cleft conditions have long haunted Antonia’s family. She represents the fifth straight generation afflicted with the deformity. Iranildo and Antonia’s mother, also named Antonia, were devastated to see their fifth daughter born with a cleft lip, but that paled in comparison to the love they felt for their newborn baby. Unlike so many children born with cleft conditions, Antonia was also very fortunate to be able to breastfeed without difficulty.

However, with a family of nine to support, there was no way Iranildo could afford surgery for Antonia. Even when he caught word of Operation Smile Brazil’s inaugural mission to Fortaleza shortly after Antonia was born, Iranildo couldn’t afford the bus fare nor the time away from the farm. All he could do was offer Antonia a promise that he hoped he could one day fulfill: “I promise I will get it fixed.”

Antonia, 8 years old, in September 2006 at the Operation Smile Brazil medical mission to Fortaleza. Photo: Marc Ascher.

So while she was fortunate enough to grow up physically healthy, the emotional distress Antonia would experience was inevitable. Once in school, she was relentlessly bullied and tormented by her classmates because of her cleft lip. Often, Antonia would come home from school in tears, telling her mother that she no longer wanted to study. The terrible names she was called were just too painful and persistent to endure.

When Antonia was 8 years old, her aunt, Leidinha, intervened and finally persuaded Iranildo to take Antonia to Fortaleza for a chance to receive free surgery at an Operation Smile Brazil medical mission. To this day, Antonia calls Leidinha “an angel.”

Iranildo, Antonia and Leidinha made the more than 3-hour bus ride to arrive at the medical mission site. Antonia was frightened to travel without her mother, who had to stay behind to care for her young children.

At the hospital, Antonia remembers playing with the other children as she awaited her comprehensive medical evaluation, which determined that she was healthy enough to go under anaesthesia for her procedure. Finally, Iranildo could make good on the promise he made to his daughter.

Still too young to understand the life-changing effects of the surgery she would soon receive, Antonia cried as the doctors took her into the operating room despite the best efforts of the medical volunteers to calm her worries. She didn’t understand that her father couldn’t come with her. Iranildo soothed his daughter’s fears by explaining that he would be there waiting for her after her procedure.

Antonia, 12 years old, in August 2010 at the Operation Smile medical mission to Fortaleza. Photo: Marc Ascher.

After a successful surgery, Iranildo couldn’t believe his eyes when he saw his daughter for the first time.

“Antonia was the most beautiful child in the world,” Iranildo said. “The other children (who had surgery) were pretty, but she was the most beautiful.”

Antonia remembers waking up from anaesthesia – her face felt strangely different and her lip was sore. All she wanted was to return home to the loving embrace of her mother. Once reunited, Antonia’s mother cried tears of joy when she saw her daughter’s new smile.

Antonia’s parents decided to keep her away from school as her lip healed fully. Once it was time to return, her teacher gathered her classmates – her former tormentors – together and asked them: “Have you seen Antonia? Look at her now – she has had surgery and see how beautiful she is.”

The teacher went on to explain that she had always been beautiful and that she had always been just like them – that any of them could have been born with a cleft and that Antonia never chose to be born with her condition.

From that moment on, the bullying ceased and Antonia made many friends and enjoyed social life as she continued her studies.

Antonia with Operation Smile Co-Founders Dr. Bill Magee and Kathy Magee in August 2010 at the Operation Smile medical mission to Fortaleza. Photo: Marc Ascher.

Meanwhile, her outstanding surgical result and photogenic nature grabbed the attention of a well-known toothpaste brand. Incredibly, the girl who was once so relentlessly tormented would become the face of a nationwide advertising campaign in Brazil.

Last October, Antonia visited the Operation Smile medical mission to Fortaleza. There, she helped nurture children and their parents by talking to them to ease their fears about surgery. She showed them a photo of her face before her procedure as she stood before them as living proof of Operation Smile’s life-changing work. Antonia said the experience brought back powerful memories and that helping the parents and children brought her so much joy.

Photo: Marc Ascher.

“If it was not for Operation Smile, I would not be here telling my story,” said Antonia, who hopes to become a doctor or nurse to one day help children like her. “Thank you for bringing back my happiness.”

Photo: Marc Ascher.