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Action Inspired by Impact: Q&A with Katie Cole

From her early years and into adulthood, Katie Cole underwent multiple surgeries and received ongoing speech therapy for her cleft condition. Today, she's accomplishing her dream of being a photographer. Photo courtesy of Katie Cole.

Our promise of improving health and dignity during the COVID-19 pandemic endures. Once again, we’re providing surgery and in-person care while taking stringent measures to keep families safe. Hope is on the horizon. And we remain focused on what cleft care makes possible for children, helping them to better breathe, eat, speak and live with confidence. If you can, when you can, help us keep our promise to care for children and create hope for tomorrow.

Born in the United States, 27-year-old photographer Katie Cole recognizes that millions of people born in low-income countries lack access to the same timely care she received for her cleft lip and palate.

Troubled by the inequity, Katie felt in her heart that she needed to make a difference.  

Reflecting on her cleft care journey, including multiple surgeries, orthodontic care and speech therapy, Katie was inspired to reach out and thank her former surgeon – Operation Smile Co-Founder and CEO Dr. Bill Magee – for not only treating her cleft condition but for establishing an organization devoted to creating solutions that deliver high-quality care to people like herself around the world. 

“What words are there to say to someone who wishes more than anything in the world that they could have the experience I was so easily given,” Katie said. “When Operation Smile goes to low-income countries, there are hundreds of people lined up hoping to receive the cleft care that I was able to receive. In all reality, I could’ve been born in one of those countries.”

Despite having the option to seek care from a local surgeon, Katie's family traveled from Iowa to Virginia for each surgery. People often asked them why.

For Katie, the answer was simple. Bill's reputation of being an exceptional cleft surgeon surpassed all others. And just like the hundreds of thousands of patients who’ve received care from Operation Smile, Katie placed her trust in Bill.

“Without Dr. Magee’s skills, passion and literal ability to care so deeply for each person he helps, I would in no way be who I am today,” Katie said. “Dr. Magee deserves to know exactly how he has influenced the lives of me and my family because of all that he’s done to help so many people.”

We recently spoke with Katie to learn more about how she’s become a beacon of hope for many parents of children born with cleft conditions and why she fundraises for Operation Smile in an effort to help more children around the world receive the care they deserve early in life.  

Operation Smile's co-founder and CEO Dr. Bill Magee poses for a photo with Katie in recovery after surgery. Photo courtesy of Katie Cole.

Q: How did you feel when you received a message back from Dr. Bill Magee?

A: “I’m so appreciative of the opportunity to be able to express to Dr. Magee the level of importance he holds in my life, my heart and my story. In all honesty, I didn’t expect a response from Dr. Magee. Not because I didn’t think he would have the courtesy to do so, but because he’s a busy man, and I’m just one patient. When I received a response, I was truly overjoyed. I’ve admired Dr. Magee for his passion and ambition for patients like me. For him to take the time to respond to just one patient meant a lot and says a lot about his character. I’ve been asked hundreds of times over my lifetime, ‘Why do you go all the way to Virginia from Iowa for your surgeries? Can’t you just find someone here?’ That question was never hard to answer. Dr. Magee made it possible for me to have far less surgeries than most people born with cleft conditions and to have a better chance of a successful recovery. I know he doesn’t do it alone, and for all of you at Operation Smile and at the hospital, I thank you!

“Since the beginning, my parents have always had his cell phone number. Not just a phone number that would direct you to his team, but one he would actually pick up if he could or call back when he could. Dr. Magee is so personable, caring and attentive. He never acted like you were a stranger. In fact, it was the exact opposite. 

“I felt the urge to reach out to Dr. Magee as an adult because, as many of us do, I reflected on my entire life. In your 20s, you grow. Now, more than ever, I am the woman I was meant to become. A physical difference like a cleft lip is no small part of someone’s life. It comes with struggles of all shapes and sizes. Without Dr. Magee’s skills, passion and literal ability to care so deeply for each person he helps, I would in no way be who I am today. I knew that Dr. Magee deserves to know exactly how he has influenced the lives of me and my family because of all that he’s done to help so many people.”

Q: How did it make you feel to share your personal cleft care journey with people born with cleft conditions and their families?

A: “Having a child with a cleft condition can be frightening. Mostly for the pain your child will have to endure for much of their lives. It’s scary for a parent to imagine their child struggle with eating, speaking or having the confidence in themselves that they deserve. 

“I remember a mother reaching out to me who had a child with a cleft condition. She often asked me questions about my own journey and recovery. At the time, she and her son were both nervous about the obstacles that were ahead of him. Through the organization she started in her son’s name, she made connections with many other parents of children born with cleft conditions, and she’d often reach out to me and ask if she could refer them to me to discuss my experience. One time she said to me, ‘You are so strong, confident, and beautiful. You show us all that it’s possible for our children to still grow up with friends and have normal lives. Through you, it’s easier to see that things will be okay.’

“I try to assure them that their children will still be able to achieve great things and that our looks don’t define who we are. We are all beautiful in our own way. We all have differences. Nobody is the same. I know that my kind heart shows through my smile that Dr. Magee helped create. I can easily put myself in these families’ shoes and understand how scary it would seem. For me to be a resource for parents who are worried is something I’m honored to do.”

Dr. Bill Magee and Katie share a special moment during one of her many visits from Iowa to Virginia. Photo courtesy of Katie Cole.

Q: You received ongoing speech therapy following your cleft surgeries. Why do you think post-surgical care like speech therapy and orthodontics is vital?

A: “Speech therapy and proper dental work are two crucial things to progressing with a cleft condition. Since I received care early in life, I was able to begin talking and eating at an ideal time. The surgery, therapy and dental work that I received helped prepare my mouth for future surgeries I would need as well has having braces. There is a lot of preparation to be done before being able to move to the next step in a cleft journey.

“Speech therapy is necessary for a child or adult with a cleft condition to progress. I was in speech therapy for several years in elementary school until they felt I was able to pronounce my words properly. It took lots of practice in therapy and at home. To me, it almost seemed fun to watch myself get better, and then realize over time that I did those things without trying so hard. Therapy was easily accessible to me. I didn’t even have to leave my school. Dental care and speech therapy go hand in hand. They both work interchangeably like gears in a machine. Without one, the other would have more difficulty succeeding. Like I said above, without the ability to prepare myself for each step of the journey, my end results wouldn’t have been obtainable.” 

Q: For many years, you’ve fundraised for Operation Smile. Can you tell us more about what motivates you to continue supporting Operation Smile and the children we serve? 

A: “Operation Smile is a wonderful organization. I continue to raise money for Operation Smile because I know that if I didn’t get the cleft care I did, my life would be so different. Simple things like being able to eat and speak properly can’t be achieved without proper care. Reconstructive care of the face is crucial for the mental and physical health of those born with differences like myself. I can’t imagine a life where I was unable to get the care that I received due to inability to pay or lack of resources. Operation Smile changes that in the lives of so many around the world. It’s truly inspiring. 

“I’ve used my Facebook birthday fundraiser, Amazon’s “donate to a cause” option, and my “Front Porch Project” with my photography to donate to Operation Smile. I also bought materials to sew face masks during the pandemic and donated them to nurses, doctors and at-risk adults and children. Making face masks was something I was driven to do because I knew I had the ability and the skills to help. I don’t do this to receive recognition. Rather, I do it to contribute to a cause that means so much to me and helps so many adults and children who are in need.”

Q: What message would you share with someone born in a low-income country born with a cleft condition who hasn’t received surgery yet?

A: “It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what I would say. I live in the United States, where health care is available to basically everyone. We don’t even know what it’s like to experience the inability to receive the care we need. I, myself, can’t imagine how that must feel or how their cleft experience differs from mine. It’s hard to believe that there are adults out there who still haven’t received care.

“I would have a heart full of compassion and sorrow. What words are there to say to someone who wishes more than anything in the world that they could have the experience I was so easily given. It’s truly heartbreaking to know that when Operation Smile goes to low-income countries, there are hundreds of people lined up hoping to receive the cleft care that I was able to receive. In all reality, I could have been born in one of those countries. I’m so grateful for my journey, my story, my experiences, and the whole team who has cared for me over the years.”

Katie, today. Photo courtesy of Katie Cole.

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