Read my lips, full smiles end torment for PH kids
Just before leaving home for surgery, 5-year-old Hanna Marco made a promise to her little sister Micca, recalled their mother, Chin.
“She told her sister she’d be leaving for a while, ‘but when I come back, we’d both be beautiful,’” the mother quoted Hanna as the child played on her bed just before discharge from Sta. Ana Hospital in Manila.
Despite her fresh stitches, the girl responded with infectious cheer when asked what she’d bring home to her younger sibling: the news that “now, we have the same lips,” she said.
It is for such life-changing moments that Operation Smile continues its yearly mission to the Philippines since 1982.
The international outreach group based in Virginia, which offers free surgery to indigent patients with cleft lips, cleft palates and other facial deformities, had just concluded a nine-day “mega mission” at five sites in the country, operating on at least 750 patients from Manila, Pampanga, and the cities of Bacolod, Cebu and Davao. The June 12 to 20 outreach program was the second mission of such scale in the Philippines, the organizers said.
The congenital affliction has made life unbearable for children like Hanna, who had to put up with fierce teasing, to a point that she once had to slap a bully.
“Now, she will no longer feel embarrassed because her lips have been fixed,” Chin said.
Just as relieved was 4-year-old Justin Quicho, who had endured nasty jokes in his Las Piñas neighborhood because of his cleft lip. “Kids used to call him names, ngo-ngo! ngo-ngo!’ and bingot! bingot!,” Justin’s mother, Delia, recounted. “But not anymore,” she added, cradling the boy to sleep.
The joy of seeing one’s child finally freed from such torment through cleft surgery is all too familiar to Kenny Burchard, Operation Smile Inc.’s point man for global corporate partnerships.
“When I see these parents look at their child after surgery and see that their children can now close their mouth for the first time in their lives, and then cry … I get that. I understand what they’re thinking,” an emotional Burchard told the Inquirer in an interview on Wednesday.
His son, Victor, is cleft-defective and at 13, had endured as many surgeries.
“I tell him he lives up to his name, Victor. Because it has been very painful for him; he has had to go through 13 painful surgeries. To fix this birth defect, you have to cut and break, open and move, and it’s painful,” Burchard said of his son, an orphan from Ukraine who was adopted when he was 10 and has since been going through a series of facial surgeries.
“But it’s the kind of pain that is transformative,” the Operation Smile official said. “He knows that to have his life changed, he has to experience pain. So he accepts that [and] it has changed him. He’s very brave, very courageous. He’s a victor!”
Seeing his son’s struggle to overcome his cleft defect brought Burchard to Operation Smile when his family moved to Virginia, the global headquarters of the mission.
“Last year, I looked at Operation Smile as a potential place to work when we moved to Virginia,” he recalled. “I said ‘I have to work for you, I’ve been dealing with this in our personal journey as a family and I want to come and help.”
Reaching out to partners
Such personal experience has driven Burchard in his role of reaching out to corporate partners to raise funds so that Operation Smile could help more children like his son.
His job, he said, is “to raise money, but [also] to tell the story of Operation Smile and how it changes children, and then to get those corporate partners to become part of that story.”
Burchard added: “So for me, [this] talk of creating global corporate partnerships [may] sound really business-like. But at the end of the day, for me and for our team, we think of these kids like we think of our own children.”
His son’s experience had changed his life as a parent as well, Burchard said. “It made me care more about children who don’t have resources. Our No. 1 value at Operation Smile is expressed in the phrase ‘what if this was your child?,’” he said, his voice cracking with emotion.
“[It] changed my heart as a parent. It has made me more empathetic toward children. They all need healthcare; they all need surgery; they all need to be taken care of. And they all deserve it,” he said.
Seeing cleft-defective children in countries like the Philippines, where the incidence of this congenital condition remains high, has inspired Burchard to push harder in his campaign to bring more funding into Operation Smile.
“It makes me more passionate in my presentation and in my attempts to continue to either start or grow that partnership. It gives (me) a kind of tenacity to want to keep going because (I’m) thinking we could do more, we should do more,” Burchard said.
“That’s kind of our message: corporations could really give a little more because these children need us. It keeps the passion. If you keep it patient-centered, you never lose your passion,” he added.
The same desire to help children has kept Dr. Jesus Gil Inciong coming back to Operation Smile’s missions since he first volunteered in 1995.
Now based in Norfolk, Virginia, the pediatric plastic surgeon first volunteered in the mission as a fresh medicine graduate from the University of the Philippines. Joining Operation Smile’s missions in the Philippines has made every homecoming even more special for this Parañaque City native, who has been practicing in the United States since 2003.
“You’re providing service for children who would otherwise have no opportunity to be treated,” Inciong said, as he came out of his at least five daily surgeries during the Sta. Ana outreach.
“Children with a cleft lip and palate deformity are otherwise healthy. But we know that having a cleft lip and palate will impact the way they feed, the way they talk, the way their teeth grow. The deformity is also associated with ear infections and other health problems as the child grows,” he said.
Cleft defect afflicts 5,000 Filipinos, or one in every 500 newborns annually, according to figures from Operation Smile. This is twice the number in the United States, where oral cleft affects one in every 1,000 babies, Inciong said.
The condition is attributed to genetic and racial factors, added the plastic surgeon, and is known to affect Asians and South Americans more than North Americans and Africans. Cleft defects could also be traced to poor prenatal care and nutrition.
Addressing cleft defects requires holistic healthcare, and so Operation Smile assembles a multidisciplinary team for every patient—from plastic surgeons and anaesthesiologists to pediatricians, dentists, speech therapists, nurses, child life specialists—and a host of other volunteers from presurgery and postsurgery care, Inciong said.
“Surgery for cleft lip usually takes 45 minutes to an hour. And in that period of time, you’re changing somebody’s life,” the doctor said.
“That’s why it’s very fulfilling,” he added. “And that’s why, if you ask any of the volunteers, they keep coming back once they start volunteering. At the same time, you’re also enjoying yourself, meeting people, traveling, getting exposed to other cultures, you know the way other people live. You become a citizen of the world,” said Inciong, who has joined Operation Smile missions in South America, Europe, Africa and other parts of Asia.
A total of 301 volunteers took part in this year’s Operation Smile mega mission in the Philippines, 147 of them volunteers from such countries as Australia, Bangladesh, China, Cyprus, India, Italy, Japan, Kenya, Mexico, Pakistan, Paraguay, Russia, Sweden, United Kingdom, United States and Vietnam.
The organization flew in some $1.3 million worth of medicine, medical supplies and equipment for their five-site outreach, organizers said.
Sipalay City, Negros Occidental, native Jose Villegas, one of Operation Smile’s earlier beneficiaries, also joined this year’s mission in the hope of drumming up support for the cause.
Former head of the organization’s Speakers’ Bureau, Villegas, who now runs a bakery in Norfolk, Virginia, said Operation Smile had turned his life around.
He was 26 when the charity flew him to Virginia in 1987 to remove a nearly 1-kilo tumor that suddenly grew on his chin three years earlier.
After three years of surgery, the marine engineer got a fresh start. He has since lived in the United States, working for Operation Smile full-time for 17 years before starting his own business. He said he left only because he felt he had been “very dependent” on the organization.
“If they had not helped me, I would have been dead a long time ago,” said Villegas, who continued his volunteer work even after he had left the group.
“The legacy of changing someone’s life through this (mission), the opportunity to touch the face of so many people … It’s what Operation Smile is all about,” Villegas said.
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