Modern Day Patriots: Dr. William Magee

This Independence Day, FOX Fan is honoring modern-day men and women who have devoted their lives to a cause. From feeding New York ’s hungry to healing the smiles of children around the world, the contributions of these five people are vast. Their work serves as an inspiration and a reminder on this July 4th to fight for what you believe in.

Dr. William Magee has made it his mission to make kids smile! Through Operation Smile, the organization he founded with his wife Kathy, he has provided life-altering surgeries to thousands of children suffering from facial deformities.

FOX Fan: What prompted you and your wife to found Operation Smile?

Magee: I was working as a plastic surgeon when my wife Kathy, who has degrees in nursing and clinical social work, and I were invited to go to the Philippines with a medical charity from Texas. That trip totally changed the way we looked at life. We discovered hundreds of children ravaged by deformities who were waiting for the medical team. We were only able to help about 40 children and had to watch more than 250 get turned away. There was no justice in this. The group we were with wasn’t going back, so we decided to get a group of our friends together and go back to take care of those children. We realized how much of the world didn’t have access to the medical care we so take for granted and in the end, it was the emotion of that moment more than just the logic that brought us back. Watching the tears coming down the cheeks of the parents made us realize that it was our responsibility to come back and help them.

FF: How did healing children’s smiles grow from a cause you were passionate about to a cause you wanted to dedicate your life to?

Magee: It was really an evolutionary process. Back home in Norfolk, Virginia, Kathy and I solicited donations of surgical equipment and supplies from manufacturers and business leaders, and got our friends involved in all kinds of grassroots fund-raising efforts. We realized that they were touched just as much as we were and had their own skills and talents to bring to the table. So we put together a volunteer team for our own mission to the Philippines. This time we were able to help approximately 100 patients, but again, hundreds more still waited. So it wasn’t just a moment in time, it was just that we would see more need, people would ask for our help, and as we were able to mobilize more people, it continued to grow. What began as an idea to help only a few children has grown into a network of volunteers and medical missions transforming thousands of lives.

FF: How does healing a child’s smile change their life?

Magee: A child that has a cleft doesn’t just have a functional problem of not being able to eat or speak normally — they also have tremendous psycho and social deficiencies that cause them to be ostracized. They can literally be isolated in their own body. In many cases they never go out — a great majority don’t go to school or learn to read and write. These children don’t enter society as a normal person and as a result they can become dysfunctional members of society. They become not only a burden not only to a family but to society as well and you lose a wonderfully productive human being in the process. As little as a 45 minute surgery can turn all that around. There are very few things that you can do in life that within such a short period of time and for as little as an investment which can totally change the way people live in our world.

FF: What is the most challenging part of your work?

Magee: The most challenging part is the realization that you can’t correct everything overnight. And that you have to take a great deal of time mobilizing all of the resources necessary to be able to make an impact. In a world where people like to see instant gratification – the gratification comes in the form of any one of those children that we help heal. But to really resolve the problems that led to a child not having access to proper care takes a huge amount of time, resources and energy and we would love to move that along more quickly than is currently possible.

FF: You have travelled to many poor countries and must have seen children living in very undesirable conditions. What inspires you to continue this effort on a day-to-day basis?

Magee: The fact is that any of these types of efforts are easy to do when you isolate it down to the need of one human being. There are very few people at the end of their life that can say because of me – because of us – one child’s live has been changed forever. And if you just start to look at the individual problem and how much you can help that child, and ultimately that family, then the magnitude of the gift you are giving to them is worth the effort. We can’t look at the hundreds of thousands that are still waiting for our care, we need to focus on the children that we can help at this moment in time and then leverage that so we can do more and more every day.

FF: Operation Smile has obviously changed the lives of many children throughout the world. Is there one story that has particularly touched you?

Magee: I would have to talk about the very first child on that very first mission that caused us to go back. This was a child who did not get surgery. I remember it as if it were yesterday. A mother came up to us cradling a ripe basket of bananas in her arms. Her eight-year-old daughter was at her side and had a gaping hole in her lip. The mother said to me, “I would like to give you the only gift I can, this ripe basket of bananas, for trying to take care of my daughter.” All I could say to her was “maybe next year.” But there was no next year at that time. It was that mother and child that lead us to gather our friends and to come back next year.

FF: You maintain a practice in Virginia. How do you balance your practice, your family and Operation Smile?

Magee: It maintains a balance because it’s a circular effect. The greatest gift that’s been given to Kathy and me has been to be able to raise our children in a grounded way because of Operation Smile. With our lifestyle came a lot of opportunities and it would have been easy for our children to take everything for granted. But Operation Smile allowed us the privilege of having something we could expose our children to and to allow it to become part of their lives. In a similar way, through our work with Operation Smile, we have another family of people all over the world. It’s more than an organization. Because they share so many similar characteristics such as compassion, a giving spirit and a strong drive to help others, they have a cohesive bond and become an extended family to our family. And I am able to bring that family spirit into my practice and one feeds off of the other. So it’s a big circle and it establishes its own balances.

FF: Operation Smile celebrated its 25th Anniversary in 2007. The organization has a presence in 51 countries. What comes next? Do you see yourself working for this cause throughout your life?

Magee: Operation Smile has become such a integral part of our lives, so I don’t even look upon it as something that has a beginning or an end. As long as Kathy and I are healthy and able to make a contribution, we will remain involved. Our challenge will be to make sure that we continue to surround ourselves with great people as we have in the past that can carry on the passion for the organization and the passion for taking care of children. We can all logically understand that there hundreds of thousands of children who need help. It is reason that leads us to this conclusion, but it is emotion that leads to action. There is tremendous excitement and energy in doing what we do – and that continues to revitalize us every day. So I can’t imagine living without that kind of energy.

To learn more about Operation Smile, click here.

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