One of my joys as a journalist is the opportunity to meet some of the most fascinating people - people whom I otherwise may not have met and who have enriched my life. One such seemingly ‘accidental’ encounter was with the renowned reconstructive surgeon Dr. HS Adenwala, at the Jubilee Mission Hospital, Thrissur, Kerala. A Parsi from Mumbai, the octogenarian Dr. Adenwala has been living in Thrissur for the past 50 years. Described by a senior colleague as a “better missionary than most missionaries,” Dr. Adenwala drew my attention to the common sight of mothers with disfigured children hoping to have the deformity set right and thus enabling their children to live like anyone else. Dr. Adenwala spearheads the rigorous training requirements of Smile Train - the US-based international charity that provides cleft surgery free of charge for children (and adults too) in developing countries.
Cleft lip and cleft palate are congenital defects associated with obvious facial disfigurement, and impairment in feeding, speech, and teeth formation. Compounding these medical complications is the social burden of stigma, shame, isolation, and ostracism experienced both by the affected individuals and their families. What is encouraging is that this condition is treatable and all it takes is a simple 45 minute restorative surgery. In India, there are 35,000 children born with cleft lip/palate every year. Of these hardly 8,000 are able to access treatment. The reasons include ignorance, low levels of literacy, and lack of financial resources.
In 1999, two people felt impelled to make a difference. American Brian Mullaney, a well-known advertising professional, and Charles Wang, a leading software entrepreneur, established Smile Train. By 2009, they had helped more than 500,000 children with cleft lip / cleft palate in 76 countries across the world, partnering with 1100 hospitals in this endeavour. Besides treatment, its services include training medical and paramedical personnel and research. Our cover story captures one such Smile Train initiative with a local hospital.
Says the Smile Train’s founder-director Charles B. Wang: ”There are many problems in the world we cannot solve. But the cleft problem can be annihilated from the face of the earth, almost by magic in less than 45 minutes and at very reasonable cost. It is my life’s mission to put back the smile on the young faces and give them a new life.” No other medical procedure in the world delivers such dramatic and permanent benefits as that for clefts, he said. According to Charles Wang, there is no reason why clefts should exist at all.
People like Brian Mullaney and Charles Wang remind me of the joy of reaching out to those in need, simply because you feel so deeply the need to make a difference - without expecting anything in return. This unilateral giving is termed Gift Economy. Hopefully such other-oriented giving will also inspire the recipients to pass on the baton… It is a gentle reminder that each of us has our own calling, our unique role in the universe, and a contribution to the world that is an expression of our individuality and unconditionality.