Photo courtesy of Operation Smile

All photos courtesy of Operation Smile

Photos courtesy of Operation Smile

An Interview With The Founders of Operation Smile

By David Boller | 3.28.2019

Operation Smile is an international nonprofit organization that helps children all over the globe by providing free surgeries for children and young adults in developing countries who are born with cleft lip, cleft palate or other dental and facial conditions. Since they were founded in 1982, Operation Smile has given away surgeries and provided medical care or services to over 300,000 people. They now operate 34 full-time care centers in 19 countries.

In the last year alone, they conducted medical programs across 96 sites in 29 countries. In total, Operation Smile worked in 61 countries all around the world. Across all of these programs, they were able to help 17,262 patients who needed surgery and dental care. Again, that was just last year. 

We had the opportunity to sit down with the founders of Operation Smile, Dr. Bill and Kathy Magee. The husband and wife team have spent the last 36 years growing the organization, and helping people across the globe. Their story is quite an amazing one. From being some of the first Americans back into Vietnam after the war to traveling around the world in a hospital plane. They have trained with some of the world’s top surgeons, met with the Pope, and spent time with three different United States Presidents.

In the interview below, we had the opportunity to discuss how the organization began, some of the lessons they have learned, and advice they would give to others who want to make a difference in the world. 

Dr. William Magee

Click for Bio

William (Bill) P. Magee Jr., D.D.S., M.D., is a plastic and craniofacial surgeon who founded Operation Smile in 1982 with his wife, Kathleen S. Magee, and serves as the organization’s Chief Executive Officer.

Dr. Magee has trained and mentored thousands of physicians worldwide. A featured guest on many network television programs, Dr. Magee is also a sought-after keynote speaker for corporate and national meetings. In July 2013, he gave one of the keynote addresses to the National Speakers Association (NSA) in Philadelphia, Pa.

Dr. Magee received a D.D.S. from the University of Maryland, M.D. from George Washington University Medical School, served his general surgery residency at the University of Virginia Medical School, and received the Fulbright-Hays Scholarship Grant to study in Paris, France with Dr. Paul Tessier in 1975. He then received his plastic surgery training at the Eastern Virginia Medical School in Norfolk, Va.

Kathleen Magee

Click for Bio

Kathleen (Kathy) S. Magee, B.S.N., M.Ed., M.S.W., a former nurse and clinical social worker, founded Operation Smile in 1982 with her husband, William P. Magee Jr., D.D.S., M.D. Kathy serves as the president of Operation Smile on a full-time, volunteer basis and is a lifetime member of the Board of Directors.

A dedicated advocate for children around the world, Kathy travels overseas extensively to nurture and maintain key corporate, diplomatic and medical partnerships that enable Operation Smile to carry out its surgical missions. She has been instrumental in establishing several Operation Smile international foundations, which handle all of the logistical aspects of the medical missions and has led a majority of the organization’s fact finding missions.

Kathy is deeply involved with Operation Smile's Student Programs, which provide the opportunity for students to learn about volunteerism and support Operation Smile's work by raising funds and awareness. Since the mid-1980s, Student Programs have grown to involve thousands of students in hundreds of student associations around the world.

Question: Could you talk a little bit about how Operation Smile began?

Kathy: Bill’s partner said to him, “I went to the Philippines and you know, why don't you go Bill? You really want to take care of kids with facial deformities”. He said, “You need to go”. We had five young children at the time. No mom would say yes to that, but Bill was like, “You have always wanted to do this. You always want to help people, that’s pediatric nursing”. So I ultimately said okay.

Bill and Kathy Magee and all of their children in Colombia, Photo courtesy of Operation Smile

Question: How was that first trip?

Bill: It was this incredible experience. At the end of it there was a lady who came up to us and she had her daughter by her side, maybe eight years old. The daughter had a cleft lip and the lady said, “I have this basket of bananas that I would like to give you as a gift. That's the only thing I can afford, but I want to give it to you for trying to take care of my daughter”. Even though we turned her daughter away. We had taken care of about 40 kids at this site, and turned 250 people away. That was just horrible. I mean it was just horrible. To see these people begging you to take care of their kid, and you have to say no. Nobody planned to go back there, so this poor lady had tears coming down her cheeks. We had tears coming down our cheeks, and I think it was at that moment that the organization was born. 

Our only goal was to go back and take care of the 250 kids we had turned away. We had a great time, and I knew I could get a bunch of buddies of mine to come back. It was a win-win for everybody. So we went back, and there were 500 people that showed up. That time we had to turn away 300. So you have to go back again. 

What you have are people with nothing and their kid is going to suffer for the rest of their life for the lack of a 45 minute operation. That makes no sense whatsoever. So we thought if everybody has good time and it's a win-win, why not? 

One of the first Operation Smile medical missions in the Philippines, Photo courtesy of Operation Smile

Question: For someone who's grown up in the United States with access to healthcare and to surgery, and for people in a similar situation, can you summarize how large a problem this in the world?

Bill: It’s one of the top 10 birth defects in the world. Cleft lip and cleft palate are the most common birth defect in the United States. They affect one out of every 600 newborns. 

The backlog is massive. If you have 7,000 islands in the Philippines, then how do people get to where they can get help? Everybody who does these surgeries are in Manila, maybe a couple of people in Cebu and a couple of people in Davao. If they take the journey to those centers, they're not going to get taken care of right away. So they've wasted their money going and they won't come back. There's just a massive, massive need that's out there and it's so fixable. In as little as 45 minutes, you could change someone's life forever. Now in an ideal world, as the economics of a country grow, you can get into more sophisticated things like the orthodontics to do the maxillofacial surgery and stuff that a lot of these kids need.

Question: Your organization has been tremendously successful and has had amazing longevity. How important has it been for your organization to develop long term systems and facilities that allow you to partner with these communities in an ongoing way?

Bill: Only ten percent of surgery is the surgeon. Because they sound similar, people think surgery is the surgeon. Nothing could be further from the truth. If you don't have great anesthesia, great nursing, great instrumentation, great monitors, great paramedical type environment, you're not going to create safety. You're not going to create a safe surgical environment. Right now more people are dying from lack of access to surgery every year than from Malaria, HIV, and Tuberculosis combined. It's a massive, massive need. 

We don't ever want to stop doing cleft surgeries, but through those children we can develop the systems to elevate all of surgical care. Let's say we do the facial surgery, but other people need to do general surgery. You still need the anesthesiologist to be great. You still need the nurse to be great, the instrumentation, the monitors, et cetera. So if through the kids, we can elevate the surgical infrastructure, the institutional grows.

We flew into northeast Nicaragua with their Minister of Health, and she saw for the first time that in their hospitals there had not been running water in the operating rooms for the last year. That's what it's like out there. 

We have this great, great opportunity through children to accomplish infinitely more than just the surgery we're doing. We can set the baseline for safe surgical care. Today 85 percent of the work that's done is done in country by people that we train, and we have 34 centers now that have been developed.

Bill and Kathy Magee in the Philippines in 2018, Photo Courtesy of Zute Lightfoot

Question: You have had some pretty unique experiences over the years. In addition to traveling the world and meeting three separate United States Presidents, you also met with the Pope. My understanding is that your meeting with the Pope actually inspired you to pursue a pretty big project. Could you talk about that a little?

Bill: We met him and it was a pretty powerful experience. Afterward, we were going next door to pick up some photos that we had taken with him. When we did that, I heard this noise behind me that was pretty remarkable. I turned around and it turned out to be 10,000 Vietnamese people. I'm in St Peter's Basilica and the Pope was having a mass for 10,000 Vietnamese refugees. I thought, "Man, it'd be really cool if we could get 5,000 kids with cleft and 5,000 parents and bring them to Rome”. The idea was to have the Pope hold a mass for these people, and then we disperse them throughout the world to volunteers who would fix their cleft. We would then bring them back six weeks later and have a massive Thanksgiving. We really wanted to communicate that there's still kindness and hope in our world.

Question: That’s pretty amazing. How did the project turn out?

Bill: As we came back, the idea evolved. We eventually decided that we would go to 18 countries in nine weeks and operate on over 5,000 kids. We needed to raise 10 million dollars to do it. I was able to get a million from Warner Lambert and million from Johnson & Johnson, and another million from a Ronald McDonald House charities. We still needed 7 million, and the board was going to vote on the project in two weeks. We needed to get the money by then, because this was an insane idea. It just seemed like there was no way it was going to happen.

Right at that time, a buddy of mine from high school introduced me to a guy named Chuck Feeney who owned Duty Free. I went and met Mr. Feeney and I said, “Chuck, I need 7 million dollars to do this”. He just said, “That's no problem”. Then I had the 10 million. I went to the board, and I didn't hardly tell anybody that I had raised the money. I wanted to surprise them, because I knew that they were ready to kill me. Again, this was an insane idea. 

Kathy Magee in the Philippines in 2017, Photo courtesy of Margherita Mirabella

Question: So after you got approval, how did you go about actually trying to make this happen?

Bill: First, we went to Pat Robertson because he had a jet that he used for mission trips. We asked him if he would lease it to us for the nine weeks, and he ended up saying yes. It was an L1010 with three operating rooms on it. It had everything we needed, even the pilots. 

From there, we would sit down every Monday and plan. I was still full-time in my private practice at the time. Our Mission Coordinators, most of whom were kids who were just out of college, all had certain jobs that they had to get done before the next week. They were outside the box jobs. Like, “Get all of the landing rights for us” or “Get all of the fuel donated”. Sure enough, everybody got it done. Young people don't know they shouldn’t be able to do those things. 

All of a sudden, we had everything done. We went to 18 countries in nine weeks and operated on 5,300 kids. It was a huge success.

Question: Wow, that is pretty amazing. I don’t think many people would have been willing to pursue such a seemingly impossible project. Why was this something you decided to pursue?

Bill: It actually caused tremendous upheaval in the Board of Directors. They were ready to kill me because we were taking a big risk. I can understand why they were concerned. However, if you don’t take those risks, you're not going to grow. You're going to just be same old, same old. For example, at the 25th anniversary of Operation Smile, we decided to do the World Journey of Smiles. We went simultaneously to approximately 40 sites in 25 countries with 1,900 volunteers, all at the same time. We operated on 4,000 kids in 10 days. Again, it was one of those outside the box ideas. 

Question: So, in your experience, you have to be willing to take risks to grow?

Bill: Definitely. To say those things created tension is an understatement. We were thinking outside the box and some people didn't want to take those risks. Especially when Operation Smile achieved a certain level of success. It’s easy to think, “Well, if we keep it right here, that's good”. 

I've always believed that if you don't keep elevating what you do, you're going to become average. If you become average, you're going to become nothing. It's almost not an option. You have to continue to grow, and that means taking risks. You have to keep coming up with new ideas to be different.

Bill Magee in India in 2010, Photo courtesy of Marc Ascher

Question: It’s really amazing what you have been able to accomplish. The amount of people you have been able to impact is pretty staggering. When you first started, was the plan this big?

Bill: Where we are today wasn't any major game plan saying we have to be in X number of countries by X number of years. It was really based on emotion. What we did touched people's emotions and then they wanted to be involved. Then they saw what we saw, which wasn't National Geographic or it wasn't a thing on TV. It was real life interaction.

To be honest with you, I mean, we have thoughts of where it could be tomorrow, but there's a difference between having some dreams of where you could be and then actually doing what you can do. I think you have to have big dreams of where it could be, but you have to still do what you need to do tomorrow to get to those big dreams. You have to ask yourself, “What can I do today to produce excellent tomorrow?”

Question: Finally, what advice would you give to someone who has a desire to help or sees a need and doesn't know where to start? What would you say to them? 

Bill: If you love to do something and if you're passionate about it and you're not afraid of failure, then do it. But realize that it takes a lot of hard work and you've got to put a lot of time into it or you’re not going to be successful. You’ve got to be willing to change. 

The two of us had to be going all the time with this. This is not just, “I have a great idea”. You've got to put your time and energy into it because there will always be breakdowns. You got to figure out how to squirrel around them. I just really feel like you have to be consistent, but you have to have a good team. I mean, we were able to weave and bob with our skills and then bring others in. Don't be afraid to bring others in to help you because it's a journey really.

Want To Get Involved?

If you would like to know more about how you can get involved and help support the amazing work Operation Smile is doing, click the button below!

An Interview With The Founders of Operation Smile

By David Boller | 3.28.2019

Operation Smile is an international nonprofit organization that helps children all over the globe by providing free surgeries for children and young adults in developing countries who are born with cleft lip, cleft palate or other dental and facial conditions. Since they were founded in 1982, Operation Smile has given away surgeries and provided medical care or services to over 300,000 people. They now operate 34 full-time care centers in 19 countries.

In the last year alone, they conducted medical programs across 96 sites in 29 countries. In total, Operation Smile worked in 61 countries all around the world. Across all of these programs, they were able to help 17,262 patients who needed surgery and dental care. Again, that was just last year. 

We had the opportunity to sit down with the founders of Operation Smile, Dr. Bill and Kathy Magee. The husband and wife team have spent the last 36 years growing the organization, and helping people across the globe. Their story is quite an amazing one. From being some of the first Americans back into Vietnam after the war to traveling around the world in a hospital plane. They have trained with some of the world’s top surgeons, met with the Pope, and spent time with three different United States Presidents.

In the interview below, we had the opportunity to discuss how the organization began, some of the lessons they have learned, and advice they would give to others who want to make a difference in the world. 

Dr. William Magee

Click for Bio

William (Bill) P. Magee Jr., D.D.S., M.D., is a plastic and craniofacial surgeon who founded Operation Smile in 1982 with his wife, Kathleen S. Magee, and serves as the organization’s Chief Executive Officer.

Dr. Magee has trained and mentored thousands of physicians worldwide. A featured guest on many network television programs, Dr. Magee is also a sought-after keynote speaker for corporate and national meetings. In July 2013, he gave one of the keynote addresses to the National Speakers Association (NSA) in Philadelphia, Pa.

Dr. Magee received a D.D.S. from the University of Maryland, M.D. from George Washington University Medical School, served his general surgery residency at the University of Virginia Medical School, and received the Fulbright-Hays Scholarship Grant to study in Paris, France with Dr. Paul Tessier in 1975. He then received his plastic surgery training at the Eastern Virginia Medical School in Norfolk, Va.

Kathleen Magee

Click for Bio

Kathleen (Kathy) S. Magee, B.S.N., M.Ed., M.S.W., a former nurse and clinical social worker, founded Operation Smile in 1982 with her husband, William P. Magee Jr., D.D.S., M.D. Kathy serves as the president of Operation Smile on a full-time, volunteer basis and is a lifetime member of the Board of Directors.

A dedicated advocate for children around the world, Kathy travels overseas extensively to nurture and maintain key corporate, diplomatic and medical partnerships that enable Operation Smile to carry out its surgical missions. She has been instrumental in establishing several Operation Smile international foundations, which handle all of the logistical aspects of the medical missions and has led a majority of the organization’s fact finding missions.

Kathy is deeply involved with Operation Smile's Student Programs, which provide the opportunity for students to learn about volunteerism and support Operation Smile's work by raising funds and awareness. Since the mid-1980s, Student Programs have grown to involve thousands of students in hundreds of student associations around the world.

Question: Could you talk a little bit about how Operation Smile began?

Kathy: Bill’s partner said to him, “I went to the Philippines and you know, why don't you go Bill? You really want to take care of kids with facial deformities”. He said, “You need to go”. We had five young children at the time. No mom would say yes to that, but Bill was like, “You have always wanted to do this. You always want to help people, that’s pediatric nursing”. So I ultimately said okay.

Bill and Kathy Magee and all of their children in Colombia, Photo courtesy of Operation Smile

Question: How was that first trip?

Bill: It was this incredible experience. At the end of it there was a lady who came up to us and she had her daughter by her side, maybe eight years old. The daughter had a cleft lip and the lady said, “I have this basket of bananas that I would like to give you as a gift. That's the only thing I can afford, but I want to give it to you for trying to take care of my daughter”. Even though we turned her daughter away. We had taken care of about 40 kids at this site, and turned 250 people away. That was just horrible. I mean it was just horrible. To see these people begging you to take care of their kid, and you have to say no. Nobody planned to go back there, so this poor lady had tears coming down her cheeks. We had tears coming down our cheeks, and I think it was at that moment that the organization was born. 

Our only goal was to go back and take care of the 250 kids we had turned away. We had a great time, and I knew I could get a bunch of buddies of mine to come back. It was a win-win for everybody. So we went back, and there were 500 people that showed up. That time we had to turn away 300. So you have to go back again. 

What you have are people with nothing and their kid is going to suffer for the rest of their life for the lack of a 45 minute operation. That makes no sense whatsoever. So we thought if everybody has good time and it's a win-win, why not? 

One of the first Operation Smile medical missions in the Philippines, Photo courtesy of Operation Smile

Question: For someone who's grown up in the United States with access to healthcare and to surgery, and for people in a similar situation, can you summarize how large a problem this in the world?

Bill: It’s one of the top 10 birth defects in the world. Cleft lip and cleft palate are the most common birth defect in the United States. They affect one out of every 600 newborns. 

The backlog is massive. If you have 7,000 islands in the Philippines, then how do people get to where they can get help? Everybody who does these surgeries are in Manila, maybe a couple of people in Cebu and a couple of people in Davao. If they take the journey to those centers, they're not going to get taken care of right away. So they've wasted their money going and they won't come back. There's just a massive, massive need that's out there and it's so fixable. In as little as 45 minutes, you could change someone's life forever. Now in an ideal world, as the economics of a country grow, you can get into more sophisticated things like the orthodontics to do the maxillofacial surgery and stuff that a lot of these kids need.

Question: Your organization has been tremendously successful and has had amazing longevity. How important has it been for your organization to develop long term systems and facilities that allow you to partner with these communities in an ongoing way?

Bill: Only ten percent of surgery is the surgeon. Because they sound similar, people think surgery is the surgeon. Nothing could be further from the truth. If you don't have great anesthesia, great nursing, great instrumentation, great monitors, great paramedical type environment, you're not going to create safety. You're not going to create a safe surgical environment. Right now more people are dying from lack of access to surgery every year than from Malaria, HIV, and Tuberculosis combined. It's a massive, massive need. 

We don't ever want to stop doing cleft surgeries, but through those children we can develop the systems to elevate all of surgical care. Let's say we do the facial surgery, but other people need to do general surgery. You still need the anesthesiologist to be great. You still need the nurse to be great, the instrumentation, the monitors, et cetera. So if through the kids, we can elevate the surgical infrastructure, the institutional grows.

We flew into northeast Nicaragua with their Minister of Health, and she saw for the first time that in their hospitals there had not been running water in the operating rooms for the last year. That's what it's like out there. 

We have this great, great opportunity through children to accomplish infinitely more than just the surgery we're doing. We can set the baseline for safe surgical care. Today 85 percent of the work that's done is done in country by people that we train, and we have 34 centers now that have been developed.

Bill and Kathy Magee in the Philippines in 2018, Photo Courtesy of Zute Lightfoot

Question: You have had some pretty unique experiences over the years. In addition to traveling the world and meeting three separate United States Presidents, you also met with the Pope. My understanding is that your meeting with the Pope actually inspired you to pursue a pretty big project. Could you talk about that a little?

Bill: We met him and it was a pretty powerful experience. Afterward, we were going next door to pick up some photos that we had taken with him. When we did that, I heard this noise behind me that was pretty remarkable. I turned around and it turned out to be 10,000 Vietnamese people. I'm in St Peter's Basilica and the Pope was having a mass for 10,000 Vietnamese refugees. I thought, "Man, it'd be really cool if we could get 5,000 kids with cleft and 5,000 parents and bring them to Rome”. The idea was to have the Pope hold a mass for these people, and then we disperse them throughout the world to volunteers who would fix their cleft. We would then bring them back six weeks later and have a massive Thanksgiving. We really wanted to communicate that there's still kindness and hope in our world.

Question: That’s pretty amazing. How did the project turn out?

Bill: As we came back, the idea evolved. We eventually decided that we would go to 18 countries in nine weeks and operate on over 5,000 kids. We needed to raise 10 million dollars to do it. I was able to get a million from Warner Lambert and million from Johnson & Johnson, and another million from a Ronald McDonald House charities. We still needed 7 million, and the board was going to vote on the project in two weeks. We needed to get the money by then, because this was an insane idea. It just seemed like there was no way it was going to happen.

Right at that time, a buddy of mine from high school introduced me to a guy named Chuck Feeney who owned Duty Free. I went and met Mr. Feeney and I said, “Chuck, I need 7 million dollars to do this”. He just said, “That's no problem”. Then I had the 10 million. I went to the board, and I didn't hardly tell anybody that I had raised the money. I wanted to surprise them, because I knew that they were ready to kill me. Again, this was an insane idea. 

Kathy Magee in the Philippines in 2017, Photo courtesy of Margherita Mirabella

Question: So after you got approval, how did you go about actually trying to make this happen?

Bill: First, we went to Pat Robertson because he had a jet that he used for mission trips. We asked him if he would lease it to us for the nine weeks, and he ended up saying yes. It was an L1010 with three operating rooms on it. It had everything we needed, even the pilots. 

From there, we would sit down every Monday and plan. I was still full-time in my private practice at the time. Our Mission Coordinators, most of whom were kids who were just out of college, all had certain jobs that they had to get done before the next week. They were outside the box jobs. Like, “Get all of the landing rights for us” or “Get all of the fuel donated”. Sure enough, everybody got it done. Young people don't know they shouldn’t be able to do those things. 

All of a sudden, we had everything done. We went to 18 countries in nine weeks and operated on 5,300 kids. It was a huge success.

Question: Wow, that is pretty amazing. I don’t think many people would have been willing to pursue such a seemingly impossible project. Why was this something you decided to pursue?

Bill: It actually caused tremendous upheaval in the Board of Directors. They were ready to kill me because we were taking a big risk. I can understand why they were concerned. However, if you don’t take those risks, you're not going to grow. You're going to just be same old, same old. For example, at the 25th anniversary of Operation Smile, we decided to do the World Journey of Smiles. We went simultaneously to approximately 40 sites in 25 countries with 1,900 volunteers, all at the same time. We operated on 4,000 kids in 10 days. Again, it was one of those outside the box ideas. 

Question: So, in your experience, you have to be willing to take risks to grow?

Bill: Definitely. To say those things created tension is an understatement. We were thinking outside the box and some people didn't want to take those risks. Especially when Operation Smile achieved a certain level of success. It’s easy to think, “Well, if we keep it right here, that's good”. 

I've always believed that if you don't keep elevating what you do, you're going to become average. If you become average, you're going to become nothing. It's almost not an option. You have to continue to grow, and that means taking risks. You have to keep coming up with new ideas to be different.

Bill Magee in India in 2010, Photo courtesy of Marc Ascher

Question: It’s really amazing what you have been able to accomplish. The amount of people you have been able to impact is pretty staggering. When you first started, was the plan this big?

Bill: Where we are today wasn't any major game plan saying we have to be in X number of countries by X number of years. It was really based on emotion. What we did touched people's emotions and then they wanted to be involved. Then they saw what we saw, which wasn't National Geographic or it wasn't a thing on TV. It was real life interaction.

To be honest with you, I mean, we have thoughts of where it could be tomorrow, but there's a difference between having some dreams of where you could be and then actually doing what you can do. I think you have to have big dreams of where it could be, but you have to still do what you need to do tomorrow to get to those big dreams. You have to ask yourself, “What can I do today to produce excellent tomorrow?”

Question: Finally, what advice would you give to someone who has a desire to help or sees a need and doesn't know where to start? What would you say to them? 

Bill: If you love to do something and if you're passionate about it and you're not afraid of failure, then do it. But realize that it takes a lot of hard work and you've got to put a lot of time into it or you’re not going to be successful. You’ve got to be willing to change. 

The two of us had to be going all the time with this. This is not just, “I have a great idea”. You've got to put your time and energy into it because there will always be breakdowns. You got to figure out how to squirrel around them. I just really feel like you have to be consistent, but you have to have a good team. I mean, we were able to weave and bob with our skills and then bring others in. Don't be afraid to bring others in to help you because it's a journey really.

Want To Get Involved?

If you would like to know more about how you can get involved and help support the amazing work Operation Smile is doing, click the button below!

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