Operation Smile speaks to some of the specialists around the world helping children with cleft lip and cleft palate problems.
Teamwork is essential in a dental practice. And it is the same on a medical mission for cleft charity Operation Smile.
Volunteer dentists around the world come together, sharing their medical experience to support the children they are helping.
Dentists play a vital role when treating people with cleft conditions on Operation Smile programmes, and beyond.
Many centres host dental clinics every week. Patients with cleft palate particularly require advanced dental care. And dentists like Dr Nancy Rojas, a maxilla-orthopaedic dentist from Colombia, provide longer term dental care for patients.
Providing specialist care
‘I’m involved in the activity of the Operation Smile centre in Bogota’, says Dr Rojas. ‘I work here every week, Monday and Thursday in the morning.
‘I love to volunteer because you learn more from the patients, the families and the cultures they came from.
‘At the centre I mostly do orthodontics and orthopaedics treatments. Cleft lip patients may require multiple surgeries and treatments.
‘I work with patients of different age groups. I provide orthodontic treatments to correct the position of the jaw and pre-orthodontics to prepare patients for surgery.
‘Every Thursday I work with babies, to prepare them for cleft repair. For adults, it’s fundamental to have a local Operation Smile centre that can provide the specialist care they need.
‘Orthodontics is very a long process. One of the reasons why Operation Smile is moving from a mission only organisation to a global team providing comprehensive care.
‘In recent years Operation Smile is investing more in providing comprehensive care to patients during medical missions. Including specialised dentistry and orthognathic treatments.
‘During many medical missions I also worked as a trainer for orthodontists and orthopaedic treatments to resident dentists. Ensuring local education continues.’
Volunteer paediatric dentist, Dr Guillermo Ciluentes, from Guatemala, talks about the impact of building trust between himself, his patients and their families. Even when working remotely.
‘We can do so much more when being in direct contact with the patients. But remote consultations allowed us to gain a deeper perspective into our patients’ lives,’ Dr Cifuentes says.
‘I got to see their humble houses and rooms. Their wooden walls and tin roofs make me more aware of their reality, of the poverty in which they live. It’s encouraged me to help even more.’
Dr Cifuentes adds: ‘When I became a dentist and found out about Operation Smile, I managed to apply my knowledge to help my team and the children who have cleft conditions.
‘What I like the most about volunteering is interacting with the patients and their parents. Witnessing their happiness and how they change throughout the process that we help them through.
‘And then, after the surgery, seeing the happiness on the parent’s face when their child can smile properly.’
If not treated, infants born with cleft conditions have nine times the risk of dying within the first year of life.
They may be rejected by their families or communities. They may be unable to feed or have problems speaking due to the palatal perforation.
Operation Smile provides treatment for people with cleft conditions. On global missions or via essential fundraising for cleft centres Operation Smile has set up and trained local medical professionals to run in less developed countries around the world.
‘It was an honour’
Dr Peter McGonigal is a retired dentist based in Dublin, who travelled on a medical mission to Bacolod, Philippines. He says: ‘I wanted to use my skill as a dentist to give back.
‘One patient particularly stood out for me on the mission. A baby, whose mother had passed away due to complications during childbirth. He was reunited with his family after a cleft operation.
‘His fate contrasted sharply with my grandsons, both of whom were younger than he was.
‘It was a privilege to work for those children. And to contribute to a mission that enables them to have safe surgery.
‘It was a pleasure to be a part of this medical mission, and do what I was trained to do, plain and simple. It was an honour.’
Volunteering on a mission or in a cleft centre is only one element of what dental professionals can do to help Operation Smile’s work.
There are a number of ways UK dentists can help support Operation Smile. From fundraising to raising awareness via your practice website. Or on posters in your reception when allowed.
You could use your social media platforms to share stories of Operation Smile patients. Or hold fundraising events with your staff.
Some practices ask patients to donate a small amount when they make a treatment payment.
One dentist who applied her skills to fundraising was paediatric dentist Dr Dane Hoang.
Dr Hoang began raising funds for Operation Smile through her non-profit Le Hoang Foundation. She then attended several fundraising galas across the country.
She says: ‘To go to any country and help change a kid’s life with a relatively short surgery, you’re not only changing that child’s life, but the lives of their family as well.
‘When many of these children are born with cleft, they are shunned from society because of the stigma.
‘In Vietnam, there’s a belief that your whole family is bad luck if a child with cleft is born.
‘So when a kid receives surgery, it’s like they are whole again. You’re changing their life, their whole family’s lives, the whole community and the whole country.
‘Hopefully as they get older, they can turn around and somehow help the organisation. Or help other families that are in a similar situation – or just give back in general, because someone helped them – paying it forward.’
Operation Smile carries out hundreds of medical missions to help people with cleft lip and also cleft palate.
Just £150 provides one child with cleft lip or cleft palate with a life-changing operation.
For more information, visit www.operationsmile.org.uk/fundraise.