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From Patient to Patient Advocate

Weston Bello, an Operation Smile student volunteer from Malawi, right, poses with former patient John, who became a patient advocate after receiving surgery at the 2017 medical mission in Zomba, Malawi. Operation Smile photo.

Editor’s note: This story was written by Weston Bello, a student at the University of Malawi, Chancellor College, where he studies philosophy and psychology. As an Operation Smile student volunteer for two years, he’s taken part in two medical missions.

There is a part in the depths of our hearts that drives us to think of other people and seek to help in any way that we can. After John got his surgery from Operation Smile at the 2017 medical mission in Zomba, Malawi, that side of him came to life.

I met John before he got his surgery while he was staying at the patient village that Operation Smile provides at no cost. From what I noticed, he was very troubled by his situation. As he told me his story and the atrocities he had faced because of his cleft, I felt a deep need to help him in any way that I could.

From then onward, we became friends.

John first heard about Operation Smile from a volunteer who came to visit him at his workplace in 2017. When he learned about this opportunity to receive a surgery to care for his cleft lip, he was afraid that perhaps something would go wrong during the surgery. But thanks to the support and encouragement of the volunteers, John rallied the courage and went to the mission site in Zomba.

There, he received the gift of a transformed smile – and soon he would find a way to give back.

At age 52 and close to retirement, John lives with his wife. His sister, who accompanied him to the Zomba mission, lives nearby and would check on him from time to time. A few weeks after the surgery, I visited John at his house to check on him, too.

I believe the day I visited him was the day that he became a volunteer for Operation Smile.

Before I left his house that day, he took me to visit a family that had a relative with cleft lip. I sat there listening to John talk to the family about Operation Smile and how it had changed his life, and I was very impressed.

From then onward, John went out and started looking for other people born with cleft lip and cleft palate so that they could receive the same gift that he did.

At the 2018 medical mission to Blantyre, John returned not as a patient, but as a volunteer. He helped out with patient coordination at the patient village.

Today, he continues to find other people born with cleft lip and cleft palate and shows them pictures of him before surgery. When people see the pictures, then see his new smile, they become motivated to receive care from Operation Smile.

He said that his life changed after getting his surgery; he is a happy person now. Once he retires, John said that he will continue reaching out to people and hopes that many people will also get free and safe surgeries and be happy as well.

“After noticing how other people were suffering from cleft lip and cleft palate, I couldn’t just stand there and watch,” John said. “I wanted them to get the same help that I got.”


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.