Since 2016, Smile Train staff has had the distinct pleasure of coordinating opportunities for the new Miss Universe to visit our incredible partner hospitals, where they meet our heroic medical partners, children we’voe helped, and their families. Though meeting in-person was impossible in July 2020, with Smile Train partners still hard at work providing telehealth services and, where safe, performing surgeries all over the world, Smile Train and Miss Universe took the opportunity to virtually introduce the newest titleholder, Zozibini Tunzi from South Africa, to just a few of the people whose selfless work Smile Train donors are still making possible across Africa — plus one very special patient who reminded us why this work is still so important.
The Zoom call was hosted by Emily Manjeru, Smile Train’s PR and Communications Manager for Africa. She kicked the session off by giving Zozi a quick background on Smile Train’s work in 38 countries across the continent. Zozi then shared why Smile Train’s unique model of training local healthcare workers is so close to her heart.
The first Smile Train partner Zozi met was Dr Sammy Orock Oben, a cleft surgeon and Founder of the WECCARE Foundation in Cameroon. He spoke about how Smile Train provided his hospital with vital personal protective equipment (PPE) as soon as the pandemic hit his region. He credited this gift, along with strict safety protocols and guidelines from Ministry of Public Health and Smile Train, with allowing his team to resume performing lifesaving cleft surgeries. He was ecstatic to report that he has operated on about 12 patients so far with zero infections or incidents.
They next heard from Matron Ngozi Opara, the head nurse at Smile Train partner National Hospital Abuja, in Nigeria’s capital. She reported that when COVID-19 first hit the area, they were so overwhelmed with patients that they could not perform surgeries. Like Dr Oben, Matron Opara said that thanks to Smile Train providing PPE and other needed supplies, her hospital was able to navigate its way through the worst of the pandemic and even successfully treat some high-ranking government officials who were infected. In fact, she proudly told Zozi that National Hospital Abuja hasn’t lost a single healthcare worker because of the pandemic.
Next up was Prof Adetokunbo Adebola, also from Nigeria, a member of Smile Train’s African Medical Advisory Council (AMAC), a body made up of some of the continent’s most esteemed doctors and surgeons. He related how AMAC called for monthly meetings from the moment COVID-19 came to Africa to ensure each country was prepared to offer the highest quality of care. At their first meeting, in March, the council evaluated all national protocols and discussed what procedures would need to be in place in each country to safely resume cleft surgeries. He then described how he partnered with the West African College of Surgeons and Smile Train Africa to develop a series of twice-weekly lectures for healthcare workers across Africa on expanding telehealth services. The series was a huge success, with more than 900 people registering. He added that he was particularly proud of the programmes they hosted for speech specialists — as without these professionals, children with clefts can develop lifelong speech issues even after surgery — and of Smile Train’s efforts to provide PPE to every teaching hospital in Africa where COVID-19 is being treated. He closed by discussing the steps Smile Train is taking to leverage telehealth to provide the vital nutritional support to newborn babies with clefts and psychological care for their families as they monitor the resumption of surgeries.
After Prof Adebola spoke came a moment Zozi will never forget — meeting our patient Sarish from Kenya, and her mother, Winnie.
Emily gave Zozi a moment to wipe away her tears before introducing her to one of Smile Train’s newest partners, Dr Surandar Singh, a fellow South African, who runs the Wentworth Foundation — an orthodontics clinic for underprivileged children with clefts in Durban. “COVID was like a nightmare for us,” he said. The Foundation is in one of the poorest parts of the country, and it broke his heart to have to leave patients without the treatment they needed when the pandemic hit. But Smile Train was there to help him provide lifesaving supplies like masks and hand sanitiser to patients and their families. “We’re very lucky to have Smile Train stretching out their hands and lifting up our organisation and our patients,” he explained. “If we’re not here, those kids will not get all the other treatment that they need.”
Finally, she met Miriam Nabie, a nutritionist at Smile Train partner IcFEM Dreamland Mission Hospital in Kenya. Babies born with clefts often can’t feed, putting them at a severe risk of dying of malnutrition; it is Miriam’s job to give these babies’ mothers the support they need to not only save their babies’ lives but get them to a healthy enough weight for cleft surgery. She and her team managed to maintain their connection with patients during this time because Smile Train provided patients and staff at Dreamland with PPE, shared best hygiene practises, and even provided patients private rides to the hospital so they could keep their appointments. She beamed as she told Zozi that her hospital recently performed safe, successful cleft surgeries on 10 babies who had been too undernourished for surgery when she first met them in March. “Nutrition is a really a very important part of cleft care that we cannot overlook,” she said. “I’m glad that Smile Train is supporting the work of nutrition and care for children with clefts.”
By the time the hour was up, Zozi was left in awe of these heroes and eager to become a voice for children with clefts in her beloved Africa and around the world, whether from a Zoom room, a photoshoot, a packed auditorium, or the nearest rooftop.