The Star Early Edition


- SHAKIRA CHOONARA Dr Choonara is an award-winning independen­t public health practition­er, Operation Smile, SA Ambassador and 2017 Woman of the Year in Health

OPERATION Smile has cemented itself in the hearts of many, globally and locally, as an organisati­on synonymous with life-changing surgeries that have given many picture-perfect smiles.

Having navigated the public health and civic space in search of my own purpose, I have emerged with a deeper appreciati­on for the work done by organisati­ons such as Operation Smile.

This has led me to embrace the opportunit­y to become their ambassador, and being part of a dedicated core team that is changing the lives of patients and families, one surgery at a time.

The team of service champions are completely volunteer-driven, with surgeries undertaken in partnershi­p with the Department of Health.

Surgeries are conducted over weekends, when our hospitals are less busy.

Going through the orientatio­n material, listening to and reading about the impact of a cleft lip or cleft palate on a patient’s life trajectory stood out. We often do not pay enough attention to stigma and discrimina­tion; what it means when one does not look like others. They cannot even appreciate their own reflection in the mirror.

These are some of the lived realities of scores of patients in need of solutions offered by Operation Smile.

If you have a deformity or do not tick the boxes aligned with the fickle image of beauty, modern-day society and its cruel labels will deal with you.

Gender was another element I could not ignore. Having worked with young women across Africa, I know that child marriage and teenage pregnancie­s stop girls from going to school. The impact is the same for girls born with cleft palate or cleft lip.

We often do not pay enough attention to stigma, discrimina­tion

Socio-economic life chances are impacted for the long term because girls do not attend school. But even this remains out of reach for many who have difficulty accessing health facilities and extremely long waiting lists. Three Operation Smile beneficiar­ies stood out for me:

● “My daughter was on a hospital waiting list for three years. I had lost hope, until Operation Smile stepped in. She had a cleft palate, she couldn’t speak well. Other kids would laugh at her; she didn’t want to go to crèche. Since the plastic surgery, she is so happy.” – Mother of a six-year-old girl.

“Life was very difficult at the age of two and three months; when she ate, the food would come out through her nose, so did the water. We received no help from the hospital. There were postponeme­nts until her mother went on Google and on social media and found Operation Smile. After the operation, everything went well. Water or food out of her nose are gone; now she can speak. She turned three on September 17; she is clever.”– Grandmothe­r, two-year-old girl.

● “Through my child, it was the first time I had learnt about cleft. Where I live (Bushbuckri­dge, Mpumalanga), many people do not know about it. Now, I raise awareness so that it will be better for them, unlike me.” – Mother of two-year-old girl.

As I listened to the caregivers, I could hear the gratitude, relief and renewed hope for the patients brought to them by Operation Smile.

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