Medical volunteers transform lives and transfer skills in Mpumalanga

Operation Smile volunteer nurse Mildred Ramathole holds up one of the babies at Rob Ferreira Hospital during the May 2023 exchange

Operation Smile South Africa in partnership with the Mpumalanga Department of Health, MySchool MyVillage MyPlanet, and a dedicated team of medical volunteers from various regions of South Africa,  will be conducting a surgical program at Rob Ferreira Hospital in Mbombela between 17 – 19 May 2024.

The goal: to help 30 children and young adults with cleft lips and palates, while also strengthening the local healthcare system.

Globally, cleft conditions are among the most common birth defects, posing serious health and psychological challenges when left untreated. Fiola Lujabe, Coordinator of Programme Operations for Operation Smile, underscores the urgency of timely intervention: “The longer a child born with a cleft must await surgery, the more severe their potential health, developmental, and psychological complications become. The encouraging news is that cleft conditions can often be surgically rectified in a remarkably brief 45-minute procedure performed by a proficient medical team.”

Operation Smile South Africa has been a driving force in the delivery of comprehensive cleft care since 2006, working in provinces where early access to cleft care is severely limited for patients relying on the public health system.  This year they will perform life-altering surgeries during weekend surgical programmes in Mpumalanga, Gauteng and the Eastern Cape.

Volunteer medical professionals, including plastic and reconstructive surgeons, anaesthesiologists, paediatricians, nurses, dentists, and therapists, work alongside Rob Ferreira Hospital staff to deliver compassionate care to patients and their families, free of charge.

Simultaneous to the surgical programme, the Rob Ferreira Hospital Oral Health department will provide dental care for any child up to 12 years old requiring treatment, with patients seen on a first come-first-serve basis between 8am and 3pm on Saturday 18 and Sunday 19 May.   Spearheaded by the hospital’s head of dental, Dr Marius van der Walt, who is also a long-standing volunteer and educator for Operation Smile, the dental programme aims to help children in the Mbombela area access dental treatment during the weekend, to reduce time away from school.

Says Dr Marius van der Walt who has served on over 30 Operation Smile surgical programmes around the world: “It’s such a blessing to be part of a team that truly changes people’s lives. Each surgical programme reminds me what is truly important in life: helping others and appreciating all the things we take for granted, like having a normal, healthy child. My favorite moment on each programme is when the parents see their child directly after surgery for the first time, tears of joy that they don’t need to hide their child from society any longer.”

Another local doctor who will be part of the Operation Smile volunteer team, is anaethetist, Dr Caroline Robertson, who joined Operation Smile last May.  “The Operation Smile surgical programme involves a diverse team of professionals. Together, we collaborate to provide comprehensive care and transform the lives of these children and their families. It’s incredibly inspiring to be surrounded by such compassionate and dedicated individuals—it truly embodies the essence of humanity,” she says.

Beyond these essential surgical and dental interventions, Operation Smile prioritises the transfer of knowledge and skills to local health professionals, thus elevating the standard of medical competence in cleft care and surgery within the region.

“At Operation Smile we seek to empower local healthcare providers so that they can in-turn care for their communities. We provide training opportunities on each surgical programme and host education workshops to facilitate the transfer of skills and knowledge.  We also invest in training Community Healthcare Workers in cleft identification and pathways to care and provide basic life support training and paediatric advanced life support training for hospital staff and volunteers,” says Sarah Scarth, Executive Director of Operation Smile South Africa.

Operation Smile medical and non-medical volunteers donate their time, skills and expertise to treat patients on our short-term surgical programmes and to serve as educators to support health system strengthening.  Operation Smile has a global network of more than 5 000 active volunteers, 126 of whom are from South Africa.

“Few experiences are as profoundly impactful as being able to provide life-altering surgery to people in need,” says Naeema Alexander, from MySchool MyVillage MyPlanet CSI Implementation. “We are thrilled to join forces with Operation Smile, leveraging the unwavering support of our remarkable customers and the selfless contributions of our partners, to extend safe surgical interventions to these children and their families. Moreover, this marks our fourth sponsored surgical program as we strive to elevate medical proficiency across the region.”