London anaesthetist attends first all-women’s mission to treat children with cleft lip and cleft palate

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To mark International Women’s Day on 8th March, Operation Smile will conduct its first international medical mission comprised entirely of female volunteers, including Nurhayati Lubis, a Consultant Anaesthetist at Whipps Cross Hospital in East London.

Every three minutes, a child is born with a cleft lip or cleft palate, and without surgery will struggle to eat, speak and socialise, many being shunned by their communities.

In the UK, cleft lip and cleft palates are operated on in the first three to six months of a child being born. However, in many countries medical resources are scarce, and when available the cost is prohibitive – in some countries the cost of an operation is a year’s salary.

Run by 54 female volunteers from 27 countries, the unique mission in Morocco will demonstrate the lasting impact women have had on their programmes; on average a mission is comprised of 60 percent female volunteers.

Operation Smile carries out hundreds of medical missions throughout the year all over the world, with the long term vision of improving the local healthcare system in the area. In addition to mobilising highly accredited medical volunteers, Operation Smile provides training to local medical personnel and partners with hospitals, governments and ministries of health in order to ensure that safe surgery is a right for everyone in need.

As a result of their sustainable local training, Operation Smile Morocco, host of the first-ever all women’s medical mission, has an impressive three Cleft Care Centres, which are run by local medical professionals. Indeed, over 85 percent of all Operation Smile missions globally are now conducted by local teams, a testament to the power of education for local healthcare professionals.

For Nurhayati Lubis, a Consultant Anaesthetist working in the NHS, the first-ever all women’s medical mission will be her eighth trip with Operation Smile. She says: “It is hugely inspiring to see such a diverse team of women with such a range of skills, all working together. Working with colleagues from across the globe often results in stimulating discussions on different healthcare systems across the world and how we can learn best practices from each other. That’s something that I can take back to the NHS with fresh eyes.”

Nurhayati hopes to inspire girls and young women to pursue careers in medicine and demonstrate the lasting impact female medical volunteers have.

She says: “I have been most impressed in countries where Operation Smile has left behind a legacy by establishing a local medical team who can continue the good work once the mission is over. I’ve seen this first-hand in Nicaragua, Ghana and the Philippines. Whilst the objective of the mission was to treat the children, the aim was also to empower the local teams of nurses and doctors to continue to provide cleft surgery locally once the mission is over. By establishing care centres, they can carry out regular treatments and continue to train local surgeons and anaesthetists. For example, the anaesthesia skills that are taught by Operation Smile can be used to benefit all surgical patients, aside from cleft. This has the most local impact as far as I’m concerned.”

Children with cleft lip or cleft palate can be considered untouchable and shunned by the community who see them as cursed. Some untreated teenagers even report considering suicide. This is why therapy, as well as raising awareness of cleft conditions, are of prime importance. Children with a cleft condition can be vulnerable to malnourishment as it can be difficult to feed properly, which is why nutritional support for both child and the wider family is key.

Nurhayati Lubis and the wider team of female volunteers will be in Oujda, Morocco from March 5th to March 14th for Operation Smile’s First Women’s Mission.

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