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City of Smiles: Bacolod Medical Mission

Gavin, pictured here enjoying therapeutic play in the child life area, is one of the children who received surgery during Operation Smile's Bacolod medical mission. Suffering from a cleft lip, he was brought to the mission by his mother, Elisabeth, a house maid who learned about Operation Smile through her boss, who owns a local sugar cane farm. Operation Smile U-Voice student volunteer Kassy Monsalve shared their story: “She has always believed that the cause of her son’s unilateral cleft lip was due to a fall she had when pregnant. A dog ran across her feet and she tripped, falling face forward onto her belly. Clearly seeing the emotions rising, I educated Elisabeth on how cleft lip and cleft palate are caused and encouraged her to not blame herself for her son’s condition.”​ The Philippines experiences some of the highest rates of cleft incidence in the world. Here, about one in every 500 children are born with cleft conditions here compared to the global average of about one in 750. At this mission, 139 children received life-changing surgery. Photo: Aeson Baldevia.


Volunteer pediatrician Dr. Teresa Villanueva checks the temperature of a young cleft palate patient as part of his comprehensive health evaluation to determine if he is healthy enough to receive anesthesia and surgery. Villanueva and her husband, Atong, a biomedical engineer, call Bacolod – also known as the City of Smiles – home and volunteer at the medical mission every year. Operation Smile provided 196 patients with health evaluations on screening day. Photo: Aeson Baldevia.


One of the patients who arrived at the Bacolod medical mission was Juliana, a 4-year-old girl who was born with an extremely rare facial cleft which extends from her lower lip into her chin. Her tongue is also immobile and she has trouble moving her neck. Her conditions make it difficult for her to close her mouth completely, eat and speak. This was her second attempt at receiving surgery from Operation Smile, which had to turn her away when she was 1 year old as she fell ill before her health evaluation and was not cleared for surgery. Her case was extremely complex, but the medical team in Bacolod was capable of performing the procedure and did so after receiving the approval of Operation Smile medical leadership. Operation Smile U-Voice student volunteer Kassy Monsalve shared the story of her and her mother, Vanessa: “Due to the way she looks, Juliana is very shy and cannot speak effectively with her classmates, making social life difficult. She often times comes home and consults with her mother, expressing the sadness she feels from being different than her peers. When asked what she expects by having the surgery, Juliana said, ‘I just want to feel what it’s like to have a normal face. I just want to be beautiful.’ Clearly being a great and supporting mother, I asked Vanessa if she has any advice to give to the hundreds of other mothers who also have children affected by cleft conditions. She said, ‘I would say that support and love are the two most important factors in raising a child with a facial difference. Encourage them to feel confident in themselves. Every child is a gift from God.’” Photo: Aeson Baldevia.​


Three-year-old twin brothers John Ronel and John Romel previously received cleft lip surgery from Operation Smile and returned to the Bacolod medical mission for their cleft palate surgeries. The twins were operated on at the same time, side-by-side, in the same operating room. Their mother and uncle – the boys' primary caretakers – expressed their happiness and thanks to the Operation Smile team. Photo: Aeson Baldevia.


A mother waits with her child in the child life area outside of the operating rooms. In just a few hours, her child will have a new smile from the Operation Smile team at the Bacolod medical mission. Due to Operation Smile's sustained presence in this region, the patients are primarily younger children because most adults, teens and older children have already received surgery. For cleft conditions, the ideal age range for patients to receive surgery is when they are babies or infants and are healthy enough to be put under anesthesia. Photo: Aeson Baldevia.


Dr. Stephan Petranker (right), an anesthesiologist from New York, and Bernard Leonel Payuyo, an anesthesia resident from Manila, prepare a young patient to receive anesthesia before surgery. Photo: Aeson Baldevia.


Team members stop to watch Dr. Sonny Santos complete a complex cleft lip repair. Santos was one of the first plastic surgeons from the Philippines to volunteer with Operation Smile. He has done well more than 100 missions with Operation Smile and thousands of cleft cases. Dr. Tertius Venter, a plastic surgeon from South Africa who has been on 16 missions, said to Program Coordinator Drea Meyer that Dr. Santos is, by far, the best cleft surgeon he has ever watched. Venter goes on missions regularly throughout the year, but remarked that he especially liked the Bacolod mission for the educational exchange between the volunteers. Photo: Aeson Baldevia.


Dr. Mohamed El-Shazly stands in the cargo room outside the operating theater. In addition to his work as a plastic surgeon and educator in Egypt, Dr. El-Shazly is in charge of managing all programmatic activity and volunteers for Operation Smile Egypt. There are volunteers from nine countries participating in the Bacolod medical mission. Photo: Aeson Baldevia.


Maria Crowley, a post-anesthesia care unit nurse from Arkansas, brings a mother back to the recovery room to see her child's new smile for the first time. Photo: Aeson Baldevia.


A mother sits with her child in the post-anesthesia care unit as he awakes from anesthesia following cleft lip surgery. Photo: Aeson Baldevia.


It takes as little as $240 and as few as 45 minutes to provide life-changing surgery and a bright, beautiful new smile to a waiting child.