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[ReadingRoom] Operation Smile a hit

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  • CHAN Beng Seng
    Operation Smile a hit The Thai mission started back in 1997 and since then has provided free life-changing surgery to more than 1,900 children, Subin Khuenkaew
    Message 1 of 2 , Nov 22, 2008
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      Operation Smile a hit

      The Thai mission started back in 1997 and since then has provided free life-changing surgery to more than 1,900 children,

      Subin Khuenkaew


      Some walked all the way from their homes deep inside Burma for almost two months to reach Tak's Mae Sot district early this month.

      A Burmese woman and her child who made a long journey to Mae Sot for cleft lip and palate repair surgery. Photos by SUBIN KHUENKAEW

      The mission of these people, adults and children, was to get reconstructive facial surgery for cleft lips and palates.

      The poor were provided with the free treatment over a six-day period from Nov 2 to7 under "Operation Smile Thailand" by a non-profit volunteer medical services body incorporating surgeons from around the world.

      This year is the fifth consecutive year that Tak's Mae Sot District Hospital was picked as the operation site due to a large number of needy patients. From a few score in the first years, their number rose to hundreds this year.

      Dr Aphichai Atchapat, head of the Thai team, said 30 Thai and foreign doctors participated in this year's project. The foreign doctors mostly came from the US, Honduras and Mexico.

      "The team was made up of plastic surgeons, orthopaedic doctors, dentists, anaesthetists, psychiatrists, and doctors specialising in speech training," he said.

      Doyinmia, 49, and her daughter were among the Burmese villagers who received the treatment.

      "It is like a rebirth. I hope my daughter can eventually get married like her elder sister who underwent similar surgery. The girl rarely steps out of the house because of her looks," said Doyinmia, when talking about her 20-year-old daughter Sasamo.

      The queue was already long well before the doctors arrived.

      Before and after surgery.

      Most of the patients said they needed the problem to be fixed as, beside speech difficulties, they were also finding it hard to chew food.

      Cleft lips and palates are a kind of deformity in which children are born with a defective roof of the mouth or the upper lip in two halves. Clefting occurs in one of every 700 births, or 0.1% of the population in Thailand.

      The risk is 30 times higher in a family with a history of cleft lips and cleft palates.

      More than 300 villagers turned up at the hospital for help. Apart from birth defects, others were also inflicted by accidents.

      There were a number of follow-up cases as they had had the operation before.

      Many of the treatment seekers had been turned back last year because the doctors found they were not physically ready.

      The first day was used up for examinations, and only 109 patients passed the screening test required before undergoing surgery.

      A volunteer surgeon from Operation Smile operates on the lip of a patient.Children of the medical team brought toys for the Burmese patients to help quell their fears about surgery.Doyinmia, left, and her 20-year-old daughter Sasamo.

      Patients who were rejected were given 300-500 baht in travelling expenses to return home. Many burst into tears and said they would not give up hope and would be back to try their luck again next year.

      On the second day, when they were operated on, all 30 hospital beds were occupied. Patients' relatives were also at the hospital to give them support and provide relevant information to the doctors.

      Twenty interpreters, most of them from refugee camps and who could speak both Burmese and English, were on hand to help overcome language barriers.

      Psychiatrists gave them counselling both before and after the operations. The patients were then transferred to doctors who helped train them to speak properly. Only 20 people could undergo surgery each day.

      "I paid 100,000 kyat (about 3,000 baht) for the three-day trip by bus. My husband and I work as farm hands, cutting weeds and raising cows for 100 kyat a day. The savings were from our year-long work," said Doyinmia.

      Busaba Chirathivat, senior vice-president of Central Retail Corp, which financed the project, listens to a briefing from an Operation Smile doctor.The medical team examines a patientÂ’s mouth prior to the surgery.A project member comforts one of her patients.

      She said the family could not afford such an expensive operation in Burma.

      "My daughter waited for this day".

      But some patients needed surgery for other reasons.

      A woman who walked for a month to Tak, said her two-year-old daughter needed treatment for war injuries. The girl's hands and feet were badly burnt by fire and all her fingers stuck together. She could not walk.

      "I walked from my house in Burma to the hospital with her in my arms. The fire, caused by fighting near the village, broke out in the house where I left her unattended while going to work. I only used herbs to treat her," said the mother.

      However, the doctors could not fix all her problems in one go.

      "I have been able to operate on just one hand, not both hands and feet. The trouble is we are not there or have the time to follow up on our work," said the doctor.

      Operation Smile Thailand's previous location was Nan, where only 20 patients turned up. Facial reconstruction surgery is easily available for Thais as both the Thai Red Cross Society and public hospitals offer the treatment.

      "Mae Sot district is close to Burma and the district hospital, with 30 beds, is considered appropriate as the operating rooms are also sufficient," he said.

      Busaba Chirathivat, of Central Retail Corp, which sponsored the project, said: "The deformity has affected not only the patients, but also their families. A mother, in particular, would blame herself for the defect in her child. We hope to give them a better life and a smiley face".

      The group donated one million baht last year and 1.5 million baht this year, as part of its social responsibility programme, she said.

      Director of Mae Sot district hospital, Kanoknak Pisutthagul, said the 30-bed hospital had 38 doctors and 980 staff and each day welcomed 1,200 patients, many were Burmese and alien workers. The hospital must set aside around 49 million baht a year to accommodate the extra workload.

      A source said Mae Sot and four other nearby districts had served a large number of Burmese patients.

      "Administrative officers believed the Burmese already outnumbered the Thais in those areas. Unofficial figures showed 150,000 Burmese arrivals, excluding the Karens, in refugee camps," said the source. Operation Smile, which was first launched in 1982, now has a presence in 51 countries.

      The Thai mission started back in 1997 and has provided free physical examinations to some 3,200 children and life-changing surgery to more than 1,900 children. Their previous medical missions took them to Lampang, Nonthaburi, Nakhon Si Thammarat, Nan, Phitsanulok, Surin, Si Sa Ket and Yasothon.

      * BangkokPost: 22/11/08

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      Message 2 of 2 , Nov 23, 2008
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