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27 September 2018: Operation SmileOperation Smile logo

Today we had a speaker from Operation Smile. She works in Suffolk as a senior operating theatre nurse and goes out as a volunteer on Operation Smile missions. She decided to volunteer after talking to one of her hospital’s anaesthetists who is himself a volunteer. Each person goes for 10-12 days. In her case she has to take annual leave in order to go. Whilst her fare and hotel expenses are paid for, she does have to raise £300 each time herself. She estimated that the cost of each mission is around £100,000. There are 80 - 100 volunteers on each mission. Operation Smile runs some 400 missions in 60 countries and volunteers come from all over the world.

The charity performs corrective operations on those with cleft palates. Cleft palates are the third most common birth defect and only 25% of those born with the condition in developing countries are ever treated. Operation Smile, which has its headquarters in America, is the only charity tackling the problem. A cleft palate is caused when a foetus's hard palate fails to knit together in the womb and gives rise to further medical problems. Many of those left untreated die before their first birthday.

Our speaker’s first mission was to Vietnam, where she was delighted to be able to help children with the condition and see what a difference it made to the lives of them and their families. Children with cleft palates can be victimised and ostracised by their societies; one four-year old boy turned up with a sack over his head, which he had been wearing all his life.

At one mission she was on 245 children were assessed. The team includes not only nurses and surgeons but also counsellors and speech therapists. Even those who are not considered candidates for surgery receive a full screening, as there may be other defects picked up which can be treated by other agencies.

The assessments take place over four days, operations being performed on the remaining days. Some 150 of the 245 children seen were treated. Operation Smile aims to return regularly to each place it visits, as the need is far greater than can be tackled at any one time.