Ethiopians go about everyday life Ethiopians go about everyday life About one in every 1,000 African babies are born with cleft lips or palates, creating a challenge in places like Ethiopia, where access to healthcare is scarce. (Photo: Ilia Torlin / Shutterstock)

Israeli doctors help bring smiles to Ethiopia

Plastic surgeons assist a nonprofit volunteer group to perform cleft lip and cleft palate surgeries.

Since 1982, the nonprofit group Operation Smile has helped facilitate surgery for middle- to low-income children and adults across the globe suffering cleft lips or cleft palates. In May, a multi-national delegation of doctors and other volunteers delivered dozens of smiles to nearly 100 Ethiopian men, women and children suffering from these facial defects.

Two doctors from Haifa’s Rambam Hospital – senior oral surgeon Dr. Omri Emodi and senior plastic surgeon Dr. Zach Sharony – took part in Operation Smile’s 10-day medical mission to Ethiopia along with 51 other doctors from 13 different countries, including the United States, South Africa, Peru, Sweden, India, Ghana, Egypt and Ethiopia. Additional volunteers included anesthesiologists, nurses, operating room technicians, pediatricians, speech therapists, dentists, orthodontists and others – all assisted by translators and local hospital staff.

The volunteers flew into the Ethiopian capital of Addis Abada before traveling an additional hour to the city of Mekele, where they set up a base that included four surgical tables used almost around the clock.

Project manager Molly Milroy of Operation Smile lauded the doctors and others who made the mission possible.

“It takes a unique individual to venture to a country where you’ve never worked before,” Milroy told From the Grapevine. “I am continually impressed with the grace and confidence these volunteers exude while on [these missions]. It’s really an honor to be part of it all."

Milroy, who also blogged about the mission, said it was a spirit of teamwork on the part of each medical professional that made the complex mission a success.

“When on a medical mission where the main goal is to better people’s lives … all egos are left at the door and the volunteers are the truest version of themselves,” Milroy said.

The surgeries provided by Operation Smile and its volunteers can help alleviate medical issues and speech impediments, along with providing aesthetic benefits. But Milroy said the gift they give to needy families goes beyond building a better smile to building a wholly better and more confident person.

“Patients are extremely grateful that Operation Smile comes to their community to provide this type of service,” she said. “Often [patients say to me] ‘I can’t believe these … volunteers are here on their own time and willing to come help our community.’ They are truly grateful and show it in the most caring ways – baking the volunteers cakes, making signs and writing thank-you notes.”

Milroy said those who often display the most gratitude are mothers of young children in awe of the new smiles on their baby’s faces.

“The mothers can’t stop their tears from flowing and say ‘Thank you’ over and over,” Milroy said. “It feels incredible to know that we’re a small part of making such a shift happen in that human being’s life. To know that they can now attend school, work and be a part of their community without being shunned is an amazing gift to be able to provide.”

Patients aren’t the only beneficiaries of these missions: They also serve as a training session for local medical professionals who can, in turn, use that training to help others in need.

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