Roma Downey Works Miracles With Operation Smile
By John Morgan, Spotlight Health
is helping Operation Smile save children one smile at a time.
With medical adviser Stephen A. Shoop, M.D.
After a nine-year run as the beautiful angel Monica on Touched by an Angel,
Roma Downey has witnessed her share of made-for-TV miracles. But her work with
Operation Smile is as close to real heavenly intervention as you'll ever get.
"There's probably nothing more synonymous with children than the word smile,"
says Downey, who is currently filming the CBS television movie Survivor's
Club. "Operation Smile visits 21 countries on an annual basis to fix children
who have cleft lips and palates. Their slogan is 'changing lives one smile at
Founded in 1982 by plastic surgeon William Magee and his wife, Kathleen, Operation
Smile travels all over the globe with teams of medical volunteers to not only
repair cleft lips and cleft palates but also to teach local doctors how to fix
these facial deformities. To date, Operation Smile has helped an estimated 70,000
Cleft lip and cleft palate are caused by a genetic defect during the fourth
to eighth week of pregnancy. Operation Smile estimates that approximately 1
in 800 American children is born with cleft lips or cleft palates. But in the
developing world this number increases to 1 in 500.
A before and after shot
of a Vietnamese child.
"Most people in the United States never see what a cleft lip really looks like,"
says Bill Magee, CEO and co-founder of Operation Smile. "If you don't form your
lip properly, there is a significant facial deformity. The palate helps create
a vacuum in the mouth which is responsible for sucking. A baby wouldn't be able
to breast feed and would have a very difficult time bottle feeding. With the
palate open you also have nasality of speech or unintelligible speech."
But often to a child the emotional devastation is far worse than the physical
"There is a shocking physical visual when you see a child with teeth growing
out of a hole in the mouth where there should be lips," says Downey, who last
summer visited Viet Nam for part of an Operation Smile mission. "Because the
child can't speak properly, the assumption is often made that he or she is mentally
retarded and they are often humiliated and shunned. In some of the cultures,
people believe there is some sort of a curse on the family. The whole family
is negatively impacted by this condition."
No one is more aware of this than the child with a cleft lip or palate.
"The worst disease a person can have is insecurity," says Magee, who is also
Chief of Department of Plastic Surgery at the Children's Hospital of the King's
Daughters in Norfolk Virginia. "There are many reasons why people become insecure
but it is painfully easy to understand why a child with cleft lip or palate
would have this insecurity. It is devastating to these children."
As negative as the situation can be, Operation Smile is helping restore dignity
and smiles. What astounded Downey was that these deformities could be fixed
with a relatively simple, inexpensive, 45-minute operation.
"There are anatomical parts that should be in anatomical places but are distorted
at birth," Magee explains. "It's all there. We just have to isolate each component
and place them in the proper positions. Scars are not the big issue. Developing
symmetry is the challenge."
Raising funds is also a big challenge.
While approximately 90 cents of every dollar donated benefits children directly,
Operation Smile still needs to raise nearly $10 million annually. To help reach
this goal, Downey has joined their Board of Governors as well as has filmed
a PSA which will begin running nationally later this year.
"You can only imagine the devastation a parent must feel when there are no
resources available to heal their child," Downey says. "Operation Smile invites
local surgeons to train in how to perform the operations. It's the philosophy
that if you give a man a fish he'll eat for a day. If you teach him to fish,
he'll eat for a lifetime."
Twenty-one years after first going to the Philippines, local doctors trained
by Operation Smile are now performing 100% of the operations. About 1000 kids
are helped a year in Colombia by local doctors.
"The operation actually costs about $238 - if we add the educational programs
and advocacy and training programs and credentialing and the equipment and supplies
then we then invest another $584 per child in this process," Magee notes. "Clearly,
if we invest the $584, what we produce is sustainability and long-term change
in these countries."
Downey herself calls her mission to Viet Nam life-changing and the single most
moving event of her life, next to the birth of her daughter.
"The most moving part for me was I was given the privilege of handing the baby
back to the mother after the operation," Downey explains. "Here I was handing
back a healed child who not 45 minutes earlier had had an excruciatingly deformed
little face. To be the one to hand back this restored child to the mother and
to see her face as she looked upon her whole child for the first time was incredible."
But Downey also knows the need for Operation Smile is enormous and that children
are turned away every trip due to lack of resources. And for that reason the
actress vows to raise awareness and funds so Magee and his team of volunteers
can continue helping children throughout the globe.
"Here I was thinking I was giving back and I can only say that this trip was
a gift to me," Downey says. "I want everyone to know about Operation Smile and
the incredible work that Dr. Magee and his teams perform because every child
deserves a smile. It is their birth right and we can change lives dramatically."
For more information about Operation Smile, click
is the leading creator of celebrity-featured health-issue awareness campaigns,
connecting consumers with impassioned celebrities whose personal health battles
can open eyes, dispel myths and change lives. Spotlight Health helps sufferers
and caregivers meet the challenges of difficult health circumstances with understandable,
in-depth medical information, compassionate support and the inspiration needed
to make informed healthcare choices.
Created: 11/8/2003  - John Morgan & Stephen A. Shoop, M.D.
Reviewed: 11/8/2003  - Donnica Moore, M.D.