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Durgapur, India, 2020, photo courtesy of Operation Smile.

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Operation Smile

Transforming children's futures one smile at a time

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The recent infant-formula crisis has been devastating. Now imagine you have enough formula for your children, but they still struggle to receive proper nourishment—they choke and suffocate every time you try to feed them, milk spilling out of their nose. Every day, you watch your baby become smaller and sicker. That's the reality for many parents of children born with cleft lip and cleft palate.

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The condition is more common than you think. Every three minutes, a child is born with a cleft condition. That's one in every 500 to 750 births worldwide. Infants living with untreated cleft conditions have nine times the risk of dying within the first year of life.

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Let that sink in, and then take in these more promising figures: It takes as little as $240 and as few as 45 minutes to transform a child's future with cleft surgery.

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This quarter, we're proud to partner with Operation Smile, an organization that helps children born with cleft conditions to better breathe, eat, speak and live lives of greater quality through surgery and comprehensive care, including speech therapy, dental care, psychosocial treatment and more. All quarter long, from now until the end of September, we will donate proceeds from every veronicabeard.com order to Operation Smile, which is one of the world’s largest volunteer-based medical nonprofits. It provides year-round care at 27 care centers in 18 countries and conducted nearly 100 surgical programs last year—pulling from its global community of 6,000 medical volunteers from more than 60 countries.

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Below, learn how your donations will make a difference—but first, a quick primer on the impact of a cleft condition.

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ON THE CLEFT CONDITION

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Haiphong, Vietnam, 2009, photo courtesy of Operation Smile.

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What is cleft lip and cleft palate?
A cleft condition is a gap in the mouth that didn't close during the early stages of pregnancy. Sometimes cleft conditions can be easy to see because it’s an opening in the lip. Other times, it’s harder to detect if someone was born with a cleft condition because it’s an opening in the roof of their mouth, which is called the palate.

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How does it happen?
There are many risk factors that can increase the likelihood of a cleft condition. While some causes are still unknown, genetics and family history, pre-existing medical conditions, poor nutrition, and exposure to harmful environmental substances can affect the healthy development of a baby. As a result, these factors could contribute to a baby being born with a cleft lip and cleft palate.
While there are still many misconceptions surrounding the causes of cleft conditions, Operation Smile has teamed up with the University of Southern California and Children’s Hospital Los Angeles to conduct the International Family Study to better understand why they happen. A 2019 study revealed a potential connection between smoke inhalation from cooking over an open flame and a significant increase in cleft conditions. This cooking style, widespread in low- and middle-income countries, typically lacks effective ventilation, creating an environment that could have detrimental effects on a pregnant mother and her developing baby.

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What health issues can occur for a child living with an untreated cleft condition?
It's common for babies to have difficulty with feeding, which can lead to malnutrition or even starvation. Recurring ear infections can occur, which can lead to hearing loss. Jaw and dental development can also be affected. For people with cleft conditions, especially those with cleft palate, speech and language development can also be hindered. Children may also suffer from bullying and social isolation.

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HOW YOUR DONATIONS HELP

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Guatemala City, Guatemala, 2011, photo courtesy of Operation Smile.

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Operation Smile is committed to addressing all patients’ cleft care needs throughout their childhood and adolescence so that they can realize happier and healthier futures. We break down the organization’s life-changing work below.

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1. Surgery
A single surgical procedure is a small part of a larger, multitiered process that’s focused on the entire well-being of the patient. First, pediatricians need to perform comprehensive health exams to ensure that patients can safely undergo surgery. Then, the findings are shared and discussed with the surgical program’s clinical coordinator, pediatric intensivists and anesthesiologists to determine if it’s safe for the patient to be put under anesthesia. While no Operation Smile medical volunteer wants any child to experience the disappointment of being turned away from surgery, a patient’s safety is always the first priority.

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2. Dentistry
Dentists provide specialized procedures and create devices that improve patients' surgical results and overall health. Consider the story of Fatima and her 2-year-old daughter, Janat, from Morocco. Having been unable to eat properly for the first month of her life, Janat became severely malnourished and wasn’t healthy enough for safe cleft surgery. Just as Fatima started to think that they’d return home without a solution, the team of volunteer dentists onsite sprang into action and created a specialized feeding plate for Janat. That day was the first time Fatima saw her baby drink without suffocating.

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Fortaleza, Brazil, 2010, photo courtesy of Operation Smile.

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3. Nutrition
Operation Smile patients are especially vulnerable to malnutrition, due to difficulty eating caused by their cleft condition, and the organization addresses the need through global nutrition programs. Support ranges from the distribution of special cleft-feeding bottles, ready-to-use therapeutic food, vitamins, formula, and food to training sessions on feeding, breastfeeding, water sanitation, hygiene, and family planning.

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4. Speech
Speech therapy before and after surgery is essential. In Latin America, for instance, Operation Smile Regional Director Lizet Campos launched the HablemOS program—named after the Spanish word for "let's talk"—which has delivered speech consultations to more than 3,200 patients. “Just imagine, in these sessions, through songs and stories, we can make our little ones exercise their speech abilities and keep them from finding it tedious,” said volunteer speech pathologist Milagros Rojas. “Instead, these sessions turn into play sessions.”

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5. Psychosocial Care
A sterile medical environment—stark and uninviting—can strike fear and anxiety in young patients and their families, some of whom have never before stepped foot inside such an institution. This is why Operation Smile leans on the help of volunteer psychosocial care providers. These certified professionals help the children throughout the entire surgical experience, easing their fears and anxieties through therapeutic play and activities. They use devices, like anesthesia masks, as props during play sessions so that patients won't be surprised or frightened when those same surgical tools are used during their procedures. "Play helps to normalize the health care experience for kids,” said Robert Wing, a volunteer psychosocial care provider. “It empowers kids and gives them coping skills. Some of the kids leave the medical mission saying they had a fun time. That’s a powerful shift from being scared and frightened.”

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