c. 1996 Religion News Service
NORFOLK, VA. _ The winner of the world’s biggest humanitarian award says it was narcissism, not altruism, that prompted him to do good.
Dr. William Magee, founder of Operation Smile, recently accepted a check for $1 million _ the first Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize. The Norfolk, Va.-based group sends teams of volunteer American plastic surgeons to developing countries to perform reconstructive surgery on poor children.
While the Operation Smile doctors fix burns and remove facial tumors, they concentrate also on a relatively simple operation to correct cleft lips and cleft palates. Repairing the congenital deformity is routine in the developed world, usually done at infancy. But in poorer countries with fewer doctors, Operation Smile surgeons find adolescents, and some adults, with unrepaired cleft lips and palates.
The surgery usually takes less than an hour, and the affected person no longer has difficulty eating and speaking and, most important, is no longer an outcast. Often a child with a cleft lip or palate never goes to school, and is shy about leaving the house.
Magee, 52, said that it was “narcissism” that initially drove him to work in developing countries. An interesting word for a humanitarian. Fresh out of his training, he accompanied some other doctors to the Philippines.
“I was a young plastic surgeon, 37. I was good and I knew I was good, and I wanted to be better at cleft palates.” He got lots of practice there.
“What brought us back the next year, though, was guilt,” he said. “We watched 250 kids sent away without help.” His wife, Kathleen Magee, 51, a nurse and social worker who acts as chief executive officer of Operation Smile, remembers being surrounded by “a sea of deformed faces.”
Magee now spends three months a year on missions abroad, but doesn’t see himself as self-sacrificing. “I have a nice house, great practice, great kids, plenty of food, still go on ski vacations. The real question for me is, `Why isn’t everyone doing this?”’
On a typical Operation Smile mission, the American doctors work 14-hour days. On Operation Smile’s most recent trip to the Philippines, 17 volunteer American plastic surgeons, assisted by 19 Philippine surgeons, treated 837 children at four locations in just five days. That was a big proportion of the surgeons in the Philippines; there are only 50 plastic surgeons in the country of 69 million.
Since the Magees founded Operation Smile 14 years ago, the group has treated 16,500 children in 12 countries.
A dramatic early mission to Vietnam in 1989 was financed by three American Vietnam veterans donating $40,000 apiece and directed by Gen. John Vessey, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
In screening volunteer doctors, Magee says he looks for someone who enjoys risk and adventure, someone compassionate, and someone who isn’t rattled by the sight of local doctors reusing needles. At one of two sites in Kenya, 25 percent of the children ages 5-9 tested positive for the virus that causes AIDS, which can be transmitted by reusing needles.
“The HIV-risk is probably higher in an emergency room in Washington, D.C,” Magee said. “You can’t live your life worrying about it.”
One doctor who went to Kenya last year, Anthony Griffin, 36, whose Los Angeles practice includes liposuction, breast augmentation and facelifts, was shocked when he saw local staff members reusing disposable hypodermic needles. He also was concerned that the pediatric ward was 50 feet from an open sewer.
“We kept emphasizing the danger; that’s all you can do,” Griffin said.
This spring Griffin went on a second mission, to Gaza, to treat children’s burns, and in a few months he’ll join an Operation Smile group in China. Burns are common in Gaza, where kerosene-heated cooking caldrons stay lit all day, Griffin explained. In China, he said, infants with cleft palates are sometimes abandoned.
Griffin’s two trips took about 10 days; on a typical day he was in surgery from 7:30 a.m. until 9 p.m. “You’d operate all day and you’d walk out to the ward and see all these people waiting to be done. And you’d feel, `I haven’t made a dent.”’
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The work takes diplomatic as well as surgical skill. Doctors and nurses in Kenya or Vietnam or China could easily resent the Americans who drop in on their hospital and may be shocked at shabby buildings and out-of-date equipment. The Magees quickly realized they could do good in a more permanent way by training local doctors.
The executive director of the Hilton prize, William Richard Smyser, went on an Operation Smile mission to Nicaragua earlier this year. Along with jurors, including former surgeon general C. Everett Koop, he reviewed the applications of 200 nominated groups.
“What impressed me most was the way they worked with local doctors,” Smyser said. “There would be an American doctor on one side of the patient and a Nicaraguan doctor on the other.”
Operation Smile has 25 full-time employees, an annual budget of $3.8 million, no endowment. The doctors volunteer; medical supplies and equipment are donated.
They haven’t been hurting for money; Operation Smile is a favorite charity of Johnson & Johnson, Texaco and Citibank. There are Operation Smile charity balls and golf tournaments around the world. The extra million from the Hilton prize, Magee said, will probably go to add more countries to their current roster of 12.
Magee, from a Ft. Lee, N.J., family of 12 kids, exudes enthusiasm: “I have adult attention deficit syndrome. I like to see results real fast.” He’s an American and a surgeon, pragmatic and impatient.
The million dollars came all at once, in the form of one check, no niggling little installments. Smyser, himself a professional humanitarian and a former assistant U.N. high commissioner for refugees, said, “You have to do something major in order to attract attention; if you don’t attract attention, humanitarian work goes unnoticed. They work their lives out, and no one recognizes them.” Many of the other groups nominated this year have applied for next year’s prize.
MJP END CASEY