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Social Impact Heroes: Why & How Dr Bill & Kathy Magee of Operation Smile Is Helping To Change Our…

Social Impact Heroes: Why & How Dr Bill & Kathy Magee of Operation Smile Are Helping To Change Our World

Finally, love. All of us have a need to love and be loved; it sounds self-serving to say we want to be loved but if we don’t feel embraced it’s very difficult to keep moving forward. We need to give children the space and the chance to say that they want and need to be loved, and that they deserve love. It’s so powerful, and it’s what continues to drive our work forward.

As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Bill and Kathy Magee.

Dr. Bill Magee and Kathy S. Magee founded Operation Smile in 1982. Dr. Magee, D.D.S., M.D. is a plastic and craniofacial surgeon who serves as the organization’s CEO. Kathy Magee, who holds a B.S.N, M.Ed and M.S.W., serves as president on a full-time, voluntary basis. Dr. Magee and Kathy have committed nearly 40 years to providing safe, high-quality cleft surgery and care for children, and working tirelessly to strengthen local health systems. Through their leadership, Operation Smile has established a record of providing access and safer health care to more than 300,000 patients. Together they’ve received multiple acclaimed humanitarian awards, including the first $1 million Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize in 1996, the Servitor Pacis Award from the Path to Peace Foundation in 1997, the Humanitarian Rose Award from The People’s Princess Charitable Foundation, Inc., in London, and the President’s Call to Service Award from President George W. Bush in 2007. In 2009, U.S. News and World Report named Kathy and Bill among “America’s Best Leaders.” The Magees received the National Medal for Peace and Friendship Among Nations in Vietnam that same year. Bill and Kathy are the parents of five children and grandparents to 14, all of whom participate in Operation Smile to promote service for generations to come.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Kathy Magee: It’s hard to imagine that we’ve been doing this work for 40 years. I’ve always wanted to travel and have always been avid about working in the field of social good. A life dream came true when these two things came together during our first surgical program to the Philippines over 40 years ago. It was monumental and transformative for us. There were 14 of us in a room where hundreds of people were asking, ‘How about me, how about my child?’ We told them we could provide cleft surgery to 40 children. We had to turn about 250 children away. It was devastating.

Dr. Bill Magee: I agree; the hospital administrator said, ‘That’s fine; if you just do that and come back five or ten years from now, these people will still be here.’ She didn’t say it with any anger or hostility; it was just the reality. There was always going to be a need. Then, when we were leaving, there was a mother who wanted to thank us and all she had was a basket of fruit. She wanted to thank us even though we didn’t have the capacity to help her child. This was a very emotional eye opener for me that I never anticipated. We didn’t have any plans in place whatsoever, but I think it was in that moment that Operation Smile was born. When I reflect over 40 years to when we started in the Philippines, I think about how that didn’t happen overnight — it was 17 years of education that brought me there. And seeing what we’ve accomplished since then has changed our lives in ways we never could have imagined. In retrospect, I realize you must do what you love doing, and that it takes time to build up the skill set to do what we’ve done.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

Kathy Magee: Wow. Well, there have been so many. We’ve been privileged to travel the world, and in the process, we’ve met so many interesting people — political leaders, local government officials, dedicated healthcare workers and volunteers, and supporters of all kinds. But the story that stands out most to me is about a mother and her baby boy. Bill and I went to Vietnam for the first time and there were so many mothers lined up at the hospital. One mother grabbed me with a look in her eyes that was all too familiar. Her seven-day-old baby was going to die from starvation if we couldn’t figure out a solution for his cleft palate. At the time, the baby was too young for surgery, but one of our dentists took a risk to install a plate so that the child could eat. Our team’s quick thinking and desire to find a solution saved that baby’s life, and a year later, I got to meet him when he was old enough to have cleft surgery. These are the stories that make us so proud of our teams; these are the stories that define what we do best.

Dr. Bill Magee: The Vietnam trip stands out for me as well. Particularly because it’s proof of what can be accomplished and the type of relationships you can form when helping children is a common goal. We were the first Americans to visit through a high school friend of mine, who was a Vietnam vet. He said it had been 20 years since the war ended, and the Vietnamese had not returned our missing in action personnel, our MIAs. He asked if we’d consider going to Vietnam because he thought it would open a dialogue with the Vietnamese. We met government officials and doctors, and we traveled back with a team. That first week in Hanoi, we operated on 125 kids, and within three months of that mission, the MIAs started coming back to the United States. Since 1989, we’ve conducted surgical programs in 35 cities across Vietnam and today, we have more than 185 medical professionals from Vietnam, as well as hundreds of non-medical volunteers.

What’s critical to say here though is that we didn’t just come to Viet Nam and do this on our own or drop in and leave. We partnered with local ministries and doctors, worked with talented Vietnamese medical staff and worked very closely with communities on the ground. The story is not just told by the number of operations we’ve done, but by the local capacity built in-country.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Dr. Bill Magee: I believe our greatest lessons come from our failures. We’ll learn something if, when at first, we don’t succeed, we are honest with ourselves and ask, ‘Why didn’t that work?’

One of the things we realized immediately was that it wasn’t just about the surgeon, which is funny in retrospect because that’s what I am, and that’s who I was. We had been hyper-focused on the surgeon’s role and weren’t taking into consideration what’s needed to provide the most comprehensive care. We quickly learned that the surgeon is only 10 percent of surgery. Ninety percent of the surgery is the anesthesiologist, the nurses, the pediatricians, the dentists, the child life specialists, the psychologists, the monitoring equipment, the safety protocols, and the follow up. You can’t just operate and discharge them. Patients need speech therapy, they need dental care, and more.

Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?

Dr. Bill Magee: Right from the very beginning we said we’ve got to work on educating the local people, we’ve got to work on training, we’ve got to work on upgrading the standards of care, and we’ve got to work on raising the money to provide the right equipment for operating safely — all the things we took for granted coming from the United States. These relationships also were not one-way channels of learning — we have taken so many lessons from working in different countries, and these are partnerships we’re building.

We knew having those assets were important if local teams were going to continue providing care once we were gone. So, we had a responsibility to help with that, but they had to say yes to it. I believe the reason Operation Smile has been able to grow and be welcomed into many countries, is because we are shared partners and collaborators, who help build capacity so the infrastructure and progress can last beyond our engagement there.

Kathy Magee: Empowering local health professionals through long-term, intensive training and education creates surgical solutions that last. We’re most impactful because we understand that our work is about more than cleft care. It’s about the sustainability of care and transforming lives at scale.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

Kathy Magee: I would say every child who we’ve been able to help has been significantly impacted by Operation Smile. Cleft lip or cleft palate conditions are not just cosmetic issues — although the social stigma can be devastating for these children and their families. The surgery we provide immediately improves a child’s ability to eat, breathe, and speak. And because of our partners and donors, we’ve been able to provide free cleft surgery to more than 300,000 children. I would also say that everyone involved is impacted. Love for another human being is why we do what we do, and why all our volunteers and all the people involved go back again and again.

Dr. Bill Magee: Reason leads to conclusion; emotions lead to action. The emotions our volunteers and patients experience are what make them want to come back and what enable us to be successful and grow. We’ve also had the privilege to take each of our five children on Operation Smile trips from a young age, as well as take two high school students on every trip. Each of them is impacted significantly. Many come back and form clubs in their own schools like our daughter Brigette did. These clubs have a ripple effect in that they raise money and awareness and inspire a new generation of volunteers who want to serve others.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

Kathy Magee: As we’ve said, we can’t do this alone. We need to partner and work alongside ministries of health, academic institutions, corporations, and local health professionals, as well as our generous donors. We would not be able to do what we do without all those parties involved. It’s through working together that we will be able to help revolutionize how entire heath systems deliver surgical care. Once we needed to bring a child back with us — which would happen when the child needed a more sophisticated surgery than the one, we could provide in their country. There was something wrong with the visa that was preventing us to bring the child back with us. Bill met a senator who let us know that he could help, and we learned how valuable public-private partnerships could truly be.

Dr. Bill Magee: Yes, I remember that. We had been trying to get the child back for months, but when the senator offered help, we were able to get the child back within two weeks. It takes a can-do attitude to some extent, and it requires you to lead with your heart. If I were a leader of a country, I would say the most important thing to me are the children of my country, and I would do anything to help them. Most people in this world share that priority — everybody working together for the interest of the children. The leaders that I’ve met from around the world can never say no once you show them the need of the children because the care of children is one of the few things in this world that is apolitical. Children are the great equalizer of everything; no one is prejudiced against a child. If leaders allow us to work with their people to help the children of their country, there is value in it. Period.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

Dr. Bill Magee: We grew our organization by fostering an environment and the feeling of a global family that is compassionate and loving. We believe love is a decision to make somebody else’s problem your problem. In its simplicity, if you give love to somebody, they’ll give love to you in return. That’s the positive thing that should drive most human beings. So why not focus on that to grow an organization and let that be the milestone you’re looking for? It’s the love and leadership that is going to drive this for the future. Our love for people pushes us to get creative. We look for solutions that position us to provide the care that children need. It may be that we have to call a president, or we may need to drive to an ambassador’s house. The point is that we cannot be afraid.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

Dr. Bill Magee: Here are five lessons learned, though there are so many.

The first: Our failures ultimately lead to our greatest successes. You have to be able to think outside the box. That doesn’t mean every thought we have is going to be good, but if we don’t pursue it, we don’t learn from it.

In 1999, I had the incredible opportunity to have a meeting with the Pope. After the meeting I came outside and saw 10,000 Vietnamese people who had come for a “mass of hope,” and a blessing from the Pope. I was so inspired and wanted to bring 5,000 young people and their parents to the Vatican.

As I spoke to more and more people, it became apparent this wasn’t feasible or realistic. It wasn’t going to happen. But out of this opportunity I spoke to a lot of people who had their own ideas, and in speaking to them I started to give ownership of the idea to them. They had a part, and their creativity drive a new idea.

Out of this was born the World Journey of Hope. Over 9 weeks, we operated on over 5,000 children in 18 countries, with more than 1100 volunteers. We gave equipment and supplies to every country that promised they would operate on one child a day after we were gone. This wasn’t the original idea, but what started out as an outrageous idea ended up as something that was exceptional, and that built the health system in 18 countries.

The second: Travelling and seeing things first-hand makes all the difference. We live in our own culture and world, and often have no idea until we travel what people are living with. In the countries where we help children, people are happy and fulfilled. But they also have no access to health care — really none. If someone has appendicitis they’ll die. If someone breaks a bone, they may never work. But we don’t think about that or realize that’s the reality of the world.

We have to expose ourselves, our volunteers and the world to these issues and make change. That means a myriad of things — from safe surgical systems, which of course are urgent, to teaching people the power of seeing challenges up close. Our 40th is about extending into 40 hospitals that don’t have some of these tools or supplies. But that’s just part of it. Seeing the world, or another place, can have a catalytic effect.

Third, establishing a sense of a global family is very important. In travelling and taking care of children you get to see and understand different cultures, and this makes you become a more tolerant human being.

One thing we believe Operation Smile can accomplish is bringing our world together through children. Operation Smile isn’t the Magee family, it’s a global family — and through that value I believe we can continue to grow.

The fourth is empowering children more and trusting children to lead. We bring children on trips, have young people supporting surgeries and on the operating floor. People think that’s crazy or not how you do things. But more and more when we empower young people on volunteer missions, they go back and start clubs, start projects, and share with others. Through our youth work, young people who have experienced cleft challenges can verbalize their experiences and talk with others. We give them an opportunity to speak.

In our recent work, we have had young people hear from someone in a popular band who grew up with cleft; and from an NFL star born with cleft. These kids can get on calls about the experience and the impact of these surgeries and its very powerful. The student programs are important and unique, and central to our work.

Finally, love. All of us have a need to love and be loved; it sounds self-serving to say we want to be loved but if we don’t feel embraced it’s very difficult to keep moving forward. We need to give children the space and the chance to say that they want and need to be loved, and that they deserve love. It’s so powerful, and it’s what continues to drive our work forward.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Kathy Magee: I would just say that any of us can use our skills and talents to improve the lives of others. In our case, it was medical expertise, but it could be something else entirely for someone else. I would say look around at the needs of people around the world. What can you contribute, how can you help? Just do something. There are so many ways to make a difference — big or small. All it takes is an idea and a desire to execute. You’d be surprised how many world problems we could begin to solve if everyone just did something. Think about Operation Smile — we set out to treat cleft conditions, and in doing so, we’ve opened the door for opportunities to transform the lives of patients in more ways than one. Our eyes were opened to healthcare inequities and fragile infrastructure that exacerbate poor health conditions for low- and middle-income countries. It was a child with a cleft condition that brought us into the community and served as the inspiration to transform and rebuild entire healthcare systems so that children with cleft and others needing medical assistance will have the chance to get the high-quality care they deserve. Just do something. The impact can be much bigger than you could ever imagine.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Dr. Bill Magee: It’s not necessarily a quote but, in general, I’m amazed how many people are willing to think things are impossible, when in fact, they’re truly possible. All you have to do is ask. You probably know somebody who knows somebody, who knows somebody who can help. You just have to ask. I wrote Dr. Paul Tessier asking if I could come study with him in Paris. He was world-famous and considered the father of modern craniofacial surgery. He said, ‘Yes.’ Years later, because I had studied with Dr. Tessier — along with 20 other people — I was asked to introduce him for a big award he was receiving from the Plastic Surgery Society. Suddenly, he knew who I was, so I started talking to him. I asked if he would consider coming to Norfolk to work with me for two weeks every six months performing craniofacial surgery on people with severe tumors and massive facial conditions. He said yes, and for six years we did that. We operated on about 160 patients together.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Kathy Magee: We’ve been privileged to meet all sorts of people, from all walks of life, from many, many different countries, but I’d love to sit down with Mother Theresa, if she were still living. We had a chance to visit her homes in India and Calcutta once, and we have handwritten notes from her as well. We also sent students to her homes to learn about her work. She took people off the street who were dying; she and the other nuns would clean them up so that they could die with dignity.

Dr. Bill Magee: Everywhere we’ve gone, we’ve met caring and loving people who truly care about one another. I think that must get celebrated. Once people start to recognize, they’ll see that if we put our money and our efforts into goodness, our communities will be stronger, our people will be stronger, and our world will be better. To that point, I’d love to sit down with leaders who aren’t known to be caring — the leaders with bad reputations either because of dictatorships or what have you. I would want to sit down with them to see if I could change the way that they act or change their belief system by sharing the work we’re doing with children.

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This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!


Social Impact Heroes: Why & How Dr Bill & Kathy Magee of Operation Smile Is Helping To Change Our… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.