"No One Will Ever Laugh at Me Again"

updated 10/24/1991 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/24/1991 AT 01:00 AM EDT


MORE THAN 18 MONTHS AFTER the American invasion of Panama and the fall of Manuel Noriega, parts of Panama City are still seething. The nation is free of its dictator, but many of its people resent the price paid in death and destruction. On a wall near the Hospital del Niño—Children's Hospital—someone has scrawled the familiar words Yanqui Go Home.

But inside, Kathy and Bill Magee are getting a different kind of greeting. Arriving as the heads of the volunteer medical mission Operation Smile, they're met with hugs and grateful tears.

Bill, 46, is a plastic surgeon from Norfolk, Va. His wife, Kathy, also 46, is a nurse and clinical social worker. In 1982 they founded Operation Smile, a nonprofit organization that dispatches medical teams to developing countries to perform free corrective surgery on disfigured children. The things they deal with are misfortunes that brand the spirit as much as the flesh: cleft lips and palates, congenital hand and foot deformities, burns and facial tumors. In the U.S., plastic surgeons can make a good living from cosmetic and reconstructive surgery. But what might be a lucrative talent in one place is a godsend in another. Over the years, the Magees have taken their talents to those other places, to the slums of Panama City, the interior villages of the Philippines, the war-ravaged cities of Vietnam. At home the Magees are gifted and busy medics. Abroad they're miracle workers.

They are nothing less than that to 14-year-old Feliciano Jimenez. One of 160 children who have made their way to the Children's Hospital from all around Panama, he has large dark eyes and a solemn, careful manner. From a certain angle, his features are simply made more grave by a mistake that nature forged: a badly cleft palate and lip that splits the right side of his nose, then parts his mouth like a curtain, exposing his gum and a tangle of unruly teeth.

In the U.S., even a less severe deformity of this kind would be corrected in earliest childhood. But this is Panama, where for the poor an aspirin can be a luxury. Now Kathy Magee is speaking the most powerful words he has ever heard: "You will not have to live with this any longer." By any definition, a miracle.

BILL MAGEE NEVER EXPECTED TO BE a hero. He expected to be a dentist. Before that, he considered being a general practitioner like his dad, until he thought about the long hours. Kathy, a truck driver's daughter, planned to be a nurse. They were high school sweethearts in their working-class Irish neighborhood in Fort Lee, N.J. "We had pretty conventional goals," Bill admits. "We thought we'd get married, have a bunch of kids and live in New Jersey."

After their wedding in 1967, Bill completed his last year at the University of Maryland dental school, while Kathy worked as a public-health nurse in the poorest neighborhoods of Baltimore. Then Bill discovered facial surgery and decided it was the field for him. "I liked the artistry," he says. "Moving people's jaws around; making an attractive face." But art takes work. More than nine years of training followed, including study under the top maxillofacial surgeons in Zurich and Paris. When it was over, the Magees touched down in Norfolk. Bill settled into a private practice, while also performing surgery for poor children in Virginia. For a time, their lives moved into slower motion again.

In some respects, the Magees had already gone far by 1981, the year in which they discovered how much further they might still go. That year they joined a group of American doctors who went to the Philippines to operate on children suffering from cleft lips and palates. "Everywhere we turned, there was a sea of deformities," Kathy recalls. "People pushed their babies at us, tugged at our sleeves with tears in their eyes and begged us to help their children."

For five days the surgical team worked 16-hour shifts on nearly 150 children in three cities. But another 250 children had to be turned away. "I couldn't bear looking at those faces and having to say I was sorry," says Bill. For all the good they had done, the flight home was emotionally tough.

Back in Norfolk, the Magees decided that, like General MacArthur, they would have to return to the Philippines—and faster than he did. They gave their mission a name, Operation Smile, and went in search of money. It took just a few months for their personal obsession to become a citywide project. There were potluck dinners in the local Filipino community. Manufacturers donated surgical equipment and supplies. Within the year, the Magees landed back in Manila with 18 volunteer doctors, nurses and technicians. This time they would operate on 200 children. A triumph, but not enough. Even then, hundreds more remained on the waiting list. Now the Magees understood in their dead-tired bones that Operation Smile had to become a permanent operation. "Everyone said we were crazy, but we just let our emotions guide us," remembers Bill. "We did what seemed right."

In the years since, they've made it a grassroots movement that resembles a mini Peace Corps, with a $2 million annual budget, 14,000 volunteers and chapters in a dozen U.S. cities and four countries. To date, the Magees have launched 32 medical missions to nine countries, including China, Vietnam, Colombia, Ghana and Kenya, where a total of 4,800 children have been treated. The money—the existing missions require about $1.5 million in cash and $1 million in supplies each year—comes from private contributions and corporate gifts or just from bursts of inspiration. For example, the cost of the Panama mission was offset in part by $6,500 raised by teenagers in Greensboro, N.C., who organized a bowlathon.

If Operation Smile is a chance of a lifetime for the children it serves, it's no less a chance for its volunteer American doctors to see their skills in a different light. In meager operating rooms they confront the kinds of deformities that American doctors ordinarily see only in textbooks: the cleft lips that monstrously bisected both cheeks of a Panamanian infant, the burn scars that kept a Liberian boy's arm fixed to his torso and a young Vietnamese woman's chin anchored to her chest. "We're trying to give children in other countries a chance," Kathy Magee explains, "before it's too late for them to make something of their lives.

"YOU WILL NOT HAVE to live with this any longer." Kathy's words are still ringing in Feliciano's ears. In a few moments he's going to be wheeled into surgery. Kathy and Bill are sitting on the edge of his bed, teaching him to slap high fives and signal thumbs-up. With five children of their own, ages 15 to 22, the Magees understand both the anxieties and the expectations that Feliciano is trying to restrain. They ask if he has a girlfriend picked out. He makes an embarrassed nod. "Next year," Bill tells him, "you'll bring your girlfriend to meet us, and I'll see you with a big smile on your face."

The term plastic surgery is a euphemism. It makes the flesh sound as though it were just another household material instead of the crucial thing that it is—the self's tender packaging. Feliciano's lip made him both an outcast and a spectacle in his remote mountain village in Chiriqui province, where kids would taunt him and people crowd around to gape when he went to the local shops. Because his difficulties with speech have made classwork a misery, he's still in the fifth grade at the age of 14. In an unconscious gesture of shame, one that lie often repeats, he covers his mouth when he says, "Every night I asked God to send someone to help me so that I could look like the others."

Until the Magees arrived, there wasn't much hope for that. The second youngest of eight children, Feliciano was the son of a poor farmer and a mother who would account to herself for her son's pain, and her own, with a single bleak certainty: "God sent me this child to test me." But everything changed last May when Panama's media and a grapevine of churches and social-service agencies began to spread the word that the Magees and their team were on the way. In keeping with the practice of Operation Smile, which seeks to start up a continuing local chapter in every country it serves, a Panamanian division had been established by the local medical community and by civic and service organizations like the Rotary Club. The nation's First Lady, Ana Mae Diaz de Endara, became its honorary president. Through the same methods that the Magees use up north, the Panama branch raised $200,000—including one day's earnings from the local casinos.

On the American end, Bill and Kathy were bringing together their medical team, tracking down supplies and making transportation plans, always one of their most bedeviling problems. On a mission to the Philippines four years ago, 15,000 pounds of their equipment was stranded when their shipper had a scheduling change; they finally enlisted the help of the U.S. Navy in getting the supplies into Manila harbor. En route last year to Vietnam, the Magees had to prevail upon Northwest Airlines to delay a Bangkok-bound flight at Seattle airport long enough for their team to get to the gate; missing the connection would have meant losing one whole day of precious surgery. "Our biggest nightmare is logistics," says Bill, who in addition to his practice spends 20 hours each week on group-related duties. (Kathy works full-time as the group's chief operating officer.) "We have a real troop movement."

Meanwhile, there was another kind of troop movement underway in Panama. In July, Feliciano and his mother boarded a bus for the day-and-a-half trip to Panama City, where he converged with the scores of other children who had learned about the impending arrival of Operation Smile.

Some were airlifted by National Guard helicopters from the Kuna Indian village on the islands off the Caribbean coast. Reina Navarro, 7, whose right foot was bent upward the scar tissue from a severe burn, was flown out of the knotted tropical jungle of Darien province. Alexander Gil, 10, and his father traveled by donkey along mountain trails and forded a river to reach the jeep that brought them to the hospital so that Alexander's cleft palate could be repaired.

Then there was Ubaldo Obaldia, just 3 years old. He and his grandmother reached the city by paddling in a dugout cayuco from their village in San Blas, where people had said that Ubaldo's deformed face was punishment for his father's sins. "Since Ubaldo was born, we have kept him hidden in the house, says his grandmother Gilma. "Now, for the first time, I have hope he can have a normal life."

A normal life. It could seem that the only thing keeping Feliciano from that was a complex surgical procedure, including making a nostril out of flesh above his mouth after closing the cleft palate. But the Magees are in the business of looking beyond difficulties. "By his eyes, cheeks and chin, I could see he was a good-looking kid," Bill says. "I knew what I could create."

ON THE DAY AFTER HIS SURGERY, FELICIANO sits up in his hospital bed and looks at the mirror for the first time since the operation. For a moment there is disbelief in his eyes. Very gently, he touches his face. "What do you think?" asks Bill. Though his mouth is still sore, Feliciano breaks into a smile. "No one will ever laugh at me again," he says. "Now my life will be different, and I will be accepted." Then the Magees remember: Feliciano, in Spanish, means the happy one.

As much as he might like to, Bill can't linger here. For all eight of the Operation Smile surgeons on the Panama trip, there are six to eight operations like this every day. But he takes just a moment to reflect on the impulses that have brought him here. Operation Smile, he decides, is not so different from Kevin Costner's improbable project in Field of Dreams. "If Kathy and I had not taken our dreams to the limit, then this would never have happened." Then he heads into the operating room. It's late afternoon, but still early in this long day.

The American character lends itself to a fierce urge to correct the world, right now, on the spot. It can lead to disappointment when the world resists our best efforts. Sometimes it leads to havoc—there are whole countries still smarting from our urge to put their house in order. But the Magees represent American pragmatism at its brightest and most beneficial: the desire to do something splendid, translated into something splendidly done.

In September, Operation Smile went to Romania and will return to Vietnam in November. But the children of Panama are waiting to see them again. Yanqui...Come Back.


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