Volunteers from Operation Smile transform lives of children with cleft conditions

20 Mar 2022 is World Oral Health Day, a day that aims to empower people with the knowledge, tools, and confidence to secure good oral health. For children born with a cleft lip or cleft palate, proper dental care is especially important.

Global surgical non-profit Operation Smile works with dentists who volunteer their time with the organisation, providing oral care to children with cleft conditions around the world. The treatment that cleft patients receive through Operation Smile extends beyond surgery, as they are provided with oral health education and resources to support healthy smiles.

Dr Neda Kalantar is a paediatric dentist who resides in Washington DC, US. She has been an Operation Smile volunteer for over 25 years, attending 13 medical programmes with the non-profit.

“Oral healthcare is truly a luxury in many parts of the world,” explained Dr Kalantar. “Many that live in parts of the world with limited access to dental care do not realise the importance of good oral health, unfortunately. It is very rewarding to provide care and education to patients in areas where they otherwise would not have access.”

Operation Smile dental volunteers focus on oral health for patients living with cleft conditions both before and after surgery. This may include extractions, the creation of obturators, and other strategies that improve intraoral function, speech, and aesthetics.

In addition to treatment, Operation Smile dental volunteers work with patients and their families before and after surgery, ensuring that they are educated on how to take care of their mouth and are provided with resources to maintain a healthy mouth following treatment.

“For children who are undergoing treatment for a cleft condition, any active dental disease can affect the healing of their surgeries,” explained Dr Kalantar. “More awareness to oral health brings less dental disease and pain, and hopefully more smiling and happy kids. Once a cleft lip and palate is repaired, it’s life truly changing. The patients can eat, talk, and breathe so much better.”

Another Operation Smile volunteer, Dr Dane Hoang, a Dallas-based paediatric dentist, has been volunteering since 2008, serving on 11 medical and dental programmes with Operation Smile.

“Dental care is particularly important for kids with a cleft lip or palate because they are at a higher risk of having tooth and gum problems,” explained Dr Hoang. “Young children with a cleft condition have narrow arches, so educating them and their families on how to properly clean their mouth is rewarding because it makes an impact on how well they recover after surgery.”

Since 1982, Operation Smile has provided surgical and dental care for more than 326,000 patients. With the passion and dedication of Operation Smile volunteers, those with cleft conditions will continue to have access to treatment. In the countries where it works, Operation Smile also relies on the services of local volunteer dentists who serve on medical programmes and at year-round care centres, providing patients with dental treatments on a consistent and ongoing basis.

“In the United States, children born with a cleft condition get it repaired right away,” Dr Hoang continued. “To go to any country and help change a kid’s life through cleft treatment is rewarding because you are changing that child’s life forever.”