Each time that 26-year-old cyclist Salah Eddine races toward the finish line, he proudly wears the Operation Smile logo – a reminder of who helped him get to where he is today.
Before working his way to becoming a championship-caliber professional cyclist, Salah Eddine was a young child, living each day with a cleft lip and palate.
But unlike so many children around the world living with cleft conditions, Salah Eddine didn’t endure years of social isolation or ridicule due to the stigma surrounding cleft.
Thinking back to his early childhood years, Salah Eddine remembers being happy and treated with kindness. He wasn’t abused by his peers or abandoned by his family.
Salah Eddine was loved, and because of that, he grew up smiling.
For three years, his family surrounded him with love and support, hoping to give him the best life possible. Still, without treatment, Salah Eddine’s cleft condition put his future at risk.
That was until the Operation Smile Morocco medical team stepped in with the safe and essential care that he needed to live a healthy life and pursue his dreams.
With its commitment to providing comprehensive care at no cost to its patients, Operation Smile Morocco provided Salah Eddine with every aspect of care that he needed, including multiple cleft surgeries, orthodontia treatments and orthognathic surgery.
Today, 23 years after connecting with the organization, Salah Eddine uses his second chance to do what he loves most: cycling.
But over the course of that journey together, Operation Smile Morocco and Salah Eddine created a bond that spanned far beyond his treatments.
“I have complete trust and confidence in Operation Smile Morocco,” Salah Eddine said. “I feel among my own family who care about my quality of life and my well-being.”
Since 1998, Operation Smile Morocco has provided the highest quality of care possible to their patients.
As the foundation became more attuned to the needs of its patients, the medical teams began offering more comprehensive services including speech therapy, orthodontics, dental care, psychosocial support and surgical revisions.
The team also strengthened its patient outreach efforts to find and heal more people living with cleft conditions in Morocco.
But with successful, long-term patient results at the forefront of their mission, Operation Smile Morocco team members became concerned when patients like Salah Eddine – who’d received surgery nearly a decade earlier – began arriving at missions complaining of jaw pain, speech problems and insomnia.
It’s not uncommon for patients born with cleft conditions to undergo multiple corrective surgeries during their lives. But with every procedure, the risk of needing corrective jaw surgery, also known as orthognathic surgery, increases due to post-operative tissue fibrosis, which is an excessive amount of tissue around the surgical site.
Not only can the buildup of tissue fibers affect a patient’s ability to chew, but it can also impact their speech, breathing, alignment of the jaw and, ultimately, their quality of life.
It’s estimated that as many as 25 to 30 percent of patients who receive surgery for a cleft condition are candidates for orthognathic surgery.
To keep their promise of providing patients with the care they need to thrive, Operation Smile Morocco activated new multidisciplinary teams who had the skills and training to perform orthognathic surgery at medical missions.
It all began with Operation Smile Morocco Co-Founder and Vice President Fouzia Mahmoudi’s observations at the organization’s care center in Casablanca. Recognizing the need to enhance its surgical capacity, Fouzia presented surgeons with multiple orthognathic cases that were similar to Salah Eddine’s.
“I was absolutely convinced that I had to do something for these kids,” Fouzia said. “And together, with a board that I have selected from many different fields and specialties, I have managed to co-found this great foundation in Morocco.”
Since making the decision to provide this type of surgery, Operation Smile Morocco has successfully completed four orthognathic programs, changing the lives of patients who, without that added level of care, would continue coping with constant pain and discomfort.
With a commitment to providing long-term, quality care, medical teams have no plans of slowing down. And their success since 2015 has not only elevated the level of comprehensive care that their patients receive, but it’s also inspired other Operation Smile foundations in the process.
Currently, teams in Nicaragua, Guatemala and Italy are striving to deliver the same advanced care on an ongoing basis.
Madison Ebel, a program manager for Operation Smile, has confidence that this milestone of providing orthognathic care represents the continued fulfillment of Operation Smile Morocco’s potential.
“Operation Smile Morocco is constantly driving for better. Even from these programs, the focus hasn’t solely been on surgery,” Madison said. “Through their passion for education and growth, they’re continuously bringing in international volunteers for their mentorship and skills. I see them expanding into more comprehensive care as they always do.”
According to Fouzia, seeing Salah Eddine – someone who she describes as “one of my son’s from the mission” – thriving after surgery is incredibly gratifying. Patient stories like his are a reason why she and so many other members of Operation Smile are passionate about providing this final step.
“To see Salah Eddine realizing his dream while pursuing his follow-ups in Operation Smile Morocco’s center since he was an infant is very touching, very special,” Fouzia said. “It makes us proud of these fantastic outcomes.”
Operation Smile Morocco is a 20-year organization that constantly aims to improve. And it’s through its commitment to comprehensive care that the organization continues reaching new heights.
“Being a patient and going through the pain of all the surgeries enabled me to go through all of the obstacles in my career,” Salah Eddine said. “This is a lesson that I have been able to get – proudly – from Operation Smile Morocco’s family.”