Standing alongside the women who mentored and inspired them, our instructors became mentors themselves, passing on their knowledge, passion and expertise as volunteers to their students who will lead future generations for years to come.
The female volunteers who serve pivotal roles in delivering high-quality surgical and multidisciplinary care to patients affected by cleft were celebrated during our first international medical mission comprised entirely of women: Women in Medicine: Inspiring a Generation.
“On average, an Operation Smile medical mission team is comprised of 60 percent female volunteers,” said Kathy Magee, Operation Smile Co-Founder and President. “We already know that our work simply wouldn’t be possible without their talent, generosity and compassion.”
In Oujda, Morocco, the female-led team of more than 50 medical volunteers from 25 countries joined forces to efficiently and collaboratively provide 286 patients with comprehensive health evaluations.
Of that total, nearly 130 children like Radouane received life-changing surgeries and brighter futures.
Nearly three years ago, Radouane's mom, Safia, gave birth alone at home. But even after seeing his cleft lip, the love she had for him never faltered.
“I was not afraid. I’d seen kids like that before, and I knew that this was the gods’ fate. I’m grateful for what the gods gave me,” she said. “He's my son. I love him, no matter what.”
While once bullied for having an unrepaired cleft condition, Radouane now has a renewed chance at a dignified and healthy life thanks to the dedicated women who volunteered their time and skill to the mission.
But changing lives through surgery wasn't the only accomplishment the all-female medical team achieved during this mission.
"Biomed techs, nurses, surgeons, dentists all come together and, with their different skills, teach everybody something new," said volunteer dentist Dr. Carmen Kamas-Weiting from the U.S.
The team engaged in training and mentorship activities, including an innovative cleft surgery simulation workshop for plastic surgery residents.
The training and education components of the mission provided enrichment opportunities for female physicians that might not otherwise be available to them.
Cleft surgeons Drs. Wafaa Mradmi of Morocco, fellow mentor Irene Tangco of the Philippines and Saloua Ettalbi of Morocco led the surgical simulations. Thanks to their expertise, medical students as well as certified plastic surgeons learned techniques unique to performing surgery on people with cleft, resulting in improved surgical outcomes for patients.
These simulations not only enhanced skills and empowered the medical professionals involved, but they also acted as another step toward these women one day becoming a credentialed volunteer surgeons for Operation Smile.
"I think, as a surgeon who has technical skills, we are really blessed," Wafaa said. "We have this unique chance to help people, to pass on our skills to the new generations for them to be able to give this cure and this care to those kids. I had this chance with Irene many years ago, and I’m still learning from her."
Dental training workshops also took place at the Operation Smile Morocco year-round care center in Oujda, which allowed the dental students involved to enhance their knowledge of the intricacies that go into delivering high-quality pre- and post-surgical dental care to patients living with cleft.
When 1-month-old Janat arrived with her parents, Carmen alerted her fellow dental volunteers after realizing that Janat was severely malnourished due to her cleft lip and palate.
Volunteer dentist and leader of the workshops Dr. Teresita Pannaci of Venezuela sprang into action and transported Janat and her family to the center to be fitted for a feeding plate.
A few of the dental students were given the real-life opportunity to apply what they learned from the workshops during Janat's two visits to the center.
It was there that Teresita demonstrated how feeding plates are measured and molded and why the plates can be life-saving for patients with severe cleft palates like Janat.
"For me, being an instructor or teacher in this is extremely important because ... we need a generation to inherit this and inspire generations," Teresita said. "It's what we're doing here. When I see this new generation that we're beginning to train, they're working, they understand what their role is, they are committed to the lives of patients."
Since being born, Janat had lost nearly half of her birth weight by the time she arrived to the mission. Her undernourishment was due to the challenges her mother, Fatima, faced when attempting to feed her.
Janat's cleft palate would cause her to choke with milk coming out of her nose. Not knowing who to talk to or what to do, Fatima felt helpless and feared for her daughter's life as she saw Janat's health start to decline.
"I was afraid that I was going to lose her," Fatima said.
Thanks to the feeding plate that Janat and one other child received at the center from Teresita, Carmen and the dental team, eating, breathing and drinking became easier for her.
Fatima shared that Janat would only drink an average of 3 ounces of milk throughout a day. After testing out her new feeding plate, Janat drank 2.5 ounces in 10 minutes. According to Fatima, it was the first time she'd ever seen her baby drink without suffocating.
"It was lovely to see our volunteers coming from the 25 countries, from five continents," said Operation Smile Morocco Co-Founder Fouzia Mahmoudi. "Sharing their know-how with our residents and our surgeons, sharing it with the same love, with the same dedication, from the bottom of their heart. We are just a university without walls."
For people interested in joining the medical field, hoping to one day impact the lives of patients like Radouane and Janat, volunteer post-anesthesia care unit nurse Florence Mangula has a message.
"I would tell them, “Take up your position, do it with all your heart, so that you’re able to help the less fortunate people in the community. Do it with the passion to see somebody smile, the passion to see a family united, the passion to remove the stigma from the family and make a child smile."