Interview with William P. Magee and Kathleen S. Magee

William P. Magee and Kathleen S. Magee, we were so happy to learn that you have been appointed Honorary Doctors of Odontology at Karolinska Institutet. Operation Smile is a humanitarian organization that provides free surgery for children with facial deformities such as cleft lip and cleft palate.  Thanks to the dedication from many people, volunteer medical professionals and corporations that donate supplies and equipment you have become an organization that operates in over 60 countries. But in the beginning of the 80s, you two were volunteers yourselves wanting to make a difference.

Would you tell me how it was back then and how you came up with the idea to found Operation Smile.

We were settled in Norfolk having just gone into my practice in plastic surgery after 17 years of education following high school. Having received both a dental and medical degree, and multiple fellowships in craniofacial reconstruction, I was ready to take on the challenges. My wife had a Bachelor’s in Nursing and was a pediatric nurse in New York City prior to our marriage and while I was going through my schooling she was achieving her master in clinical social work and then another master’s in human development. Both of us were geared towards helping children, so when the opportunity arose to take a trip to the Philippines in 1982 to take care of children with cleft lip and cleft palate it seemed like an ideal opportunity. We traveled 12 time zones around the world to land in Manila and then travel to Naga City in the Philippines. We were met by over 300 families, each with children that had gaping holes in the lip and roof of their mouths, and could not eat or speak an intelligible word. The team was able to take care of about 40 children, but we all witnessed over 250 children being turned away. That moment changed the course and direction of our life, our values, and I believe our purpose in life.

The surgery means so much more for the children than just an appearance. Would you elaborate?

A child born with a cleft of the lip is unable to adequately feel their mouth, not only for eating, but for speech and articulation. The deformity prevents proper breathing and obviously produces a significant disfigurement which isolates them from not only their peer group but many members in society. Uncorrected, that child would never achieve their innate ability to succeed. The child with a cleft palate is unable to suck, to eat properly, and to speak intelligibly. It also significantly affects their hearing and their likelihood to get significant middle ear infections. Many times these facial abnormalities are also associated with other abnormalities such as cardiovascular deformities and overall medical abnormalities.

How do the families with children with deformities find you?

Although I understand the calls that go out in a wide variety of forms to alert the public that our teams will be coming to help children with these cleft lip and cleft palate deformities, it never ceases to amaze me how it happens. I can understand that it is broadcasted on radio, put into printed form, announced from churches, and a wide variety of communications within the cities and communities. However, how it reaches into the remote barrios and hillside villages still amazes me. The extent that families go through to hopefully get their chance for their child to be taken care of is admirable and remarkable.

I am sure many of these children quite often contact you with gratitude many years after. Does it ever happen that the children themselves become active in Operation Smile?

 It is incredibly gratifying to hear the stories and meet the children that we operated on now decades ago. One child in Cebu, Philippines, named Chadleen, who was never able to speak intelligibly before her palate was corrected has recently won the singing contest in the Philippines which is analogous to American Idol. A Russian boy who traveled on his own, about 12 years old, ended up being not only a huge help to our team on the initial visit in Russia, but also received multiple surgeries for his bilateral cleft lip and cleft palate. Today, he is an anesthesiologist in Russia and volunteers with us on numerous medical missions worldwide. About a year ago we had the privilege to meet a beautiful young lady who is now living up to her lifelong dream of being a college educated nurse in the Philippines. So many individuals have graced us with their presence many years later. They are a living tribute to results of a relatively small investment into their future that would have never been attainable had it not been for people whose names they probably will never know, but whose kindness they will never forget.

You do so much more than perform surgery. You train professionals and work hard not only to raise awareness of cleft conditions but even human rights and cross-cultural understanding.  What are the major obstacles you meet?

Our organization, at its very fundamental foundation, based on “emotional infrastructure”. We have long understood that reason leads to conclusions, but it is emotion that leads to action. The emotional power of a child is remarkable. When that child has a correctable deformity, such as a cleft lip and/or cleft palate, that operation and the transition which it creates is captured in a before and after pictures. That picture becomes a metaphor that attests to the reality that involvement will create change, whether it is a child with a lip or a plate, or a child with other type of deformities, the reality is that millions of individuals will never have the chance at a normal life because of their lack of access to safe surgical care. All of us within Operation Smile stand strong and united to try and rectify that problem, and advocate for these children and their families. It is through the educational programs and outreach programs involving research and comprehensive care that these efforts of ours will continue to become possibilities.

Do you collaborate with other organizations, such as the UN and NGOs?

We collaborate with numerous other organizations. Our focus is on children with congenital deformities, principally cleft lip and cleft palate; however, there are innumerable other problems that these children and their families face. Organizations that have expertise in these other issues become welcome colleagues. We are humbly proud of what we can do as Operation Smile, but also we are humbly realistic to understand that there are many organizations with skill sets that we do not have, and it is those organizations that help us in innumerable ways. Our goal is for all of us to advocate for these children and to make sure that surgery is added to the millennium goals for 2015.

With such a busy schedule, do you ever have time to indulge yourselves? And what do you do in that case?

In traveling around the world what we have found that there are so many wonderful people in virtually every race and culture that have incredible personalities and are always fun to work side by side with. Therefore, in many ways work becomes play. Having said that, we also have a strong family ethic and 5 wonderful children, 5 wonderful sons and daughters in law and 14 beautiful grandchildren that we make time for on major family vacations. Life is fun!

Interview by Heli Vänskä