Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

Dr. Kevin Calder, long-time Operation Smile volunteer, gets to know a patient and his mother prior to performing life-changing facial surgery.OPERATION SMILE/MARC ASCHER

A surgeon inspects the sutures he’s just finished sewing onto his tiny patient. They form a tight, zigzagging line from her nose to her lip – expert craftsmanship if one knows what to look for. Her cleft has disappeared.

Aryln, a three-year-old girl from a remote community in the Philippines, is Dr. Kevin Calder’s fourth patient of the day. At 13 hours, this is the longest day of the mission, and Dr. Calder will operate on one more child before it’s over.

The volunteer medical team, many of them local professionals who are here to learn, helps as many people as possible on this intensive three-day mission funded by Operation Smile. Hundreds of families have travelled to meet with the medical team, many from villages that are hours, even days away. Operation Smile is their only hope: They could never afford what in Canada is a fairly routine surgery – through Operation Smile it is free.

Dr. Calder, a pediatric plastic surgeon from Alberta, was introduced to the organization by a mentor during his residency who was a long-time Operation Smile volunteer.

“When I first met my mentor, he had a book on his coffee table in the waiting room – World Journey of Smiles – that recorded a 10-day effort to treat more than 4,000 children with cleft in celebration of Operation Smile’s 25th anniversary,” says Dr. Calder. “I flipped through the book and I was just amazed at the dramatic difference that Operation Smile makes in patients’ lives by providing this surgery.”

In that moment, Dr. Calder made the decision to join Operation Smile’s global community of more than 6,000 volunteers including anesthesiologists, pediatricians, dentists, nurses, speech-language pathologists and child life specialists.

After three years of further training, Dr. Calder was offered the chance to be part of a medical mission to India.

“It was an incredible experience. It changes you – when you come back, you view your world differently,” he says.

It’s estimated that a child with a cleft lip or cleft palate is born every three minutes, or one in 500 to 750 births. Without surgery, a cleft can create serious health issues. Babies can have trouble feeding, often leading to malnutrition and, in some cases, starvation.

Children with cleft can also suffer from debilitating bullying and social isolation. In many places, they are shunned by their communities and even abandoned by their parents.

For more than 35 years, Operation Smile’s co-founders, Dr. Bill Magee and his wife Kathy, have committed their lives to providing free surgeries for children and young adults born with facial deformities. Their organization continues to grow, with Operation Smile Canada joining in 2011.

Aryln is one of the lucky ones. A few minutes later, she’s waking up. Next is Dr. Calder’s favourite part of the day.

“It’s so moving to carry a patient out to their mother after surgery and see how overwhelmed with joy she is to see her baby’s new smile,” he says.

But after a grateful hug from Aryln’s mother, he’s pulled away to the next surgery. “I’m actually jealous of my colleagues who get to stay and chat with the families and get to know them personally,” he admits. But his gratitude runs deep: “When I visit the post-op ward later in the day and see so many overjoyed families – so many smiles – I’m just incredibly grateful for the opportunity to be a part of it.”

Produced by Randall Anthony Communications. The Globe’s editorial department was not involved in its creation.