You are here

Dr. Charles Kabetu's Story

Dr. Charles Kabetu: Falling into Operation Smile by chance

Dr. Kabetu’s introduction with Operation Smile happened by accident, as he calls it. He walked into work one morning to see his name was on a list posted in the operating room. That list ended up being Operation Smile’s first medical mission in Kenya.

“I saw this big team that had come from around the world to operate on our kids with cleft lip and cleft palate,” Dr. Kabetu said. “The idea that this team had come just to help us, I thought, I have to be a part of it, to help our kids, too, to give back.”

Now, 27 years after that first week with Operation Smile, Dr. Kabetu continues to volunteer and says his passion for the organization has only strengthened.

Over the decades, as Operation Smile has traveled throughout Kenya, reaching more children, giving them a renewed hope for the future. Dr. Kabetu began to see the real difference Operation Smile was making in his country.

“We started going to various and diverse sites and I got excited in seeing that we are actually making an impact,” Dr. Kabetu said. “We are able to operate on the unfortunate who would never have surgery if it wasn’t for us."

“It’s seeing the results, that we’re able to actually transform the physical and psychological way these patients have been living their lives. That experience gives me much satisfaction.”

Operation Smile’s impact in Kenya reaches far beyond the children who receive surgery. Rather, the organization has served to change the perception of cleft deformities in the community and has influenced the daily practice of Kenyan doctors through collaborating with the Operation Smile team.

“When we work with so many teams from around the world, it helps us to diversify the way we treat our patients and the way we look at our clinical procedures and we have been able to utilize that knowledge in our normal practice,” Dr. Kabetu said. “My practice as an anesthesiologist and hospital administrator has actually grown from the knowledge I’ve gained from being a volunteer with Operation Smile.”

In a survey completed in 2014, 93 percent of Operation Smile’s medical volunteers say their involvement with the organization has provided a unique educational experience and helps strengthen the surgical capacity of their local community.

Dr. Kabetu said most of the Kenyan hospitals where Operation Smile has volunteered have now adopted the organization’s standards to provide the highest quality care. He says the community’s perception of cleft has also changed, thanks to Operation Smile. What was once thought of as a bad omen or witchcraft is understood now as a medical birth defect.

So many children in Kenya with cleft lip or cleft palate weren’t able to enjoy life. Their parents would hide them inside. They wouldn’t go to school, play with friends or even do something as basic as whistle.

“But since we’ve been able to penetrate most of the communities, I cannot think of anyone who is hiding their child right now because of their cleft. We’ve been to reach the whole country, I feel, and we’re able to tell them that there is treatment. This is doable and there will be a transformation.”

Since 1987 Dr. Kabetu estimates Operation Smile has changed the lives of more than 9,000 children living with a cleft lip or cleft palate. He says the numbers at medical missions are far lower now that what they used to be. Why?

“I think it’s because we’ve done most of the work. Looks as if we’ve reduced our numbers.”