In March 2023, volunteers participated in Operation Smile’s Champion Program in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, where they screened 128 hopeful patients. One of the patients who passed her comprehensive health evaluation was 24-year-old Paulina.
As a single mother of two, she explained how she had spent years being discriminated against by members of her family and community because of her cleft lip. Paulina was prepared to travel any distance to receive her new smile. After spending more than 15 hours alternating between walking and riding the bus, she reached the surgical program site where Operation Smile Bolivia’s Medical Director and local champion Dr. Carlos Dorado performed her surgery.
“I went with a team of specialists, and we were surprised to see a beautiful young woman with slightly sad eyes,” Carlos said. “I’m very, very happy to have accomplished the goal, to help Paulina smile. So, this is for Paulina. I know that there are many Paulinas in the world.” All photos by Paulo Fabre.
Seventeen-year-old Teofilo lived his entire life with an untreated cleft condition. Many patients who go to school before receiving surgery share stories of how their peers and members of their communities mistreated them. But for Teofilo, going to school was a drastically different experience.
“I went to school with my friends. They didn’t mistreat me,” he shared. “They said, ‘You need to get better.’”
With the support of his friends and family, Teofilo journeyed to the surgical program in Santa Cruz, hopeful to receive his new smile.
“I am ready,” Teofilo said. “I have thought things through, and I am happy to have come. I feel happy.”
Over the past 40 years, Operation Smile has witnessed how the lack of adequately trained health care professionals creates dangerous barriers to care, preventing older patients like Teofilo and Paulina from accessing timely surgery. To answer this call, Operation Smile’s Champion Program brings together volunteers from around the world to further elevate access to safe cleft surgery and care.
Volunteers from countries including Bolivia, Canada, the U.S., Brazil and more joined together to participate in the program.
Through educational exchanges and long-term mentorship, the Champion Program aims to build local capacity by increasing the number of available medical professionals equipped with the passion and skills to serve.
Surgeon Dr. Billy Magee, the eldest son of Operation Smile’s co-founders Kathy and Bill Magee, engages in a teaching moment with global surgery fellow Dr. Atenas Bustamante, center, and surgical resident Dr. Priyanka Naidu.
“This program has given me the opportunity to get in touch with world-renowned surgeons such as Dr. David Fisher, Dr. Billy Magee, Dr. Blas Domínguez, and to work closely with them in the operating room one-on-one,” said global surgery fellow Dr. Maria Fernanda. “I’m really excited that the Champion Program is happening here in our country because this is a great learning opportunity not just for me but for all my colleagues and fellow Bolivians who will provide cleft lip and palate care in the future.”
Anesthesiologist Dr. Glenn Merritt of the U.S. talks with his mentee. Experienced mentors like Glenn were paired with mentees, who came from areas across Bolivia. These mentorship opportunities not only sparked interest for future volunteers and bolstered their skills, but it encouraged mentees to seek out opportunities within their specialty.
“What makes the Champion Program so special are the people that we get to meet and the people that we get to see as the leaders of the next generation. Monica is one of the mentees this year,” Glenn said.
“We want them mentored with high standards. We want them to experience the legacy of the people that have done Operation Smile for the last 20 to 30 years. Many people have a lot of experience all around the world and our goal is to take that experience and move it into Bolivia and make Bolivia have a higher standard than it even dreams.”
“Bolivia has a disadvantage, which is that we’re a developing country. We have our limitations, but the human talent and especially the dedication and love that we have for what we do make our work passionate and devoted, and above all, our will to help those who need it inspires us to be here,” said volunteer surgeon Dr. Carlos Dorado.
“The Champion Program has helped and will help us combine the experience of very reputable professionals in all of Operation Smile’s specialties. I believe that, nowadays, if we don’t share what we do and what we’ve learned, we’d be resigned to stay in the past. We have wonderful people doing their best to teach, and we have fantastic professionals who will have greater skills not only for Operation Smile but, most importantly, to develop in their fields of work. Therefore, this investment of time, dedication and money will be greatly rewarded.”
This initiative has also been successfully implemented in Guatemala, Ghana and Colombia.
Teofilo was one of 64 patients to receive life-changing cleft surgery during the Champion Program in Bolivia.
His father, Braulio, shared a message with the team who helped give his son a new smile and brighter future.
“I want to express my gratitude to you, to everyone that has helped. Thank you very much,” he said. “We’re at peace.”
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.