Since 2016, Smile Train’s staff has coordinated opportunities for the new Miss Universe to visit our partner hospitals, where they meet our heroic medical partners, children we’ve 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 meet just a few of the people whose selfless work Smile Train donors make possible across Africa.
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 with more than 245 partner hospitals in 38 countries across the continent since 2002. Zozi then shared why Smile Train’s unique model of training local healthcare workers is so close to her heart.
Smile Train’s sustainable model of empowering local medical professionals has proven an invaluable guide to partners as they navigate the pandemic. In Africa, partner hospitals have been able to resume surgeries under the strict guidance of Smile Train and the safety protocols of their local health ministries. On the call, one partner after another told Zozi how grateful they are for Smile Train’s support, providing the personal protective equipment (PPE) and state-of-the-art instruments that make their lifesaving work possible now and always.
The first Smile Train partner Zozi met was Dr. Sammy Orock Oben, a cleft surgeon and founder of the WECCARE Foundation in Cameroon. He credited Smile Train and the Ministry of Public Health’s strict safety guidelines with allowing his team to resume lifesaving cleft surgeries. He was ecstatic to report that he had operated on 12 patients over two months with zero infections or incidents.
Matron Ngozi Opara, the head nurse at Smile Train partner National Hospital, Abuja, then described how, when COVID-19 came to Nigeria, her hospital was so overwhelmed with patients that they could not perform surgeries. But thanks to the PPE and other needed supplies Smile Train provided, 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. She proudly told Zozi that National Hospital, Abuja had not lost a single healthcare worker to 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 ensured each country was prepared to offer the highest quality of care during the pandemic while providing guidelines on how partners could safely resume cleft surgeries. Prof. Adebola then described how the partnership between the West African College of Surgeons and Smile Train Africa led to the creation of a series of twice-a-week lectures helping healthcare workers across Africa grow their cleft care expertise. With more than 900 people registering, the Telecleft Lectures were such a huge success that a second series was developed to run from July to October. Prof. Adebola added that he was particularly proud of the lectures 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 vital nutritional support to newborn babies with clefts and psychological care for their families as they monitor the resumption of surgeries.
Zozi then listened to an uplifting story from our patient Sarish from Kenya, and her mother, Winnie. Sarish is a testament to the priceless impact Smile Train makes on families and their communities.
After that heartwarming interaction, Emily introduced Zozi to one of Smile Train’s newest partners, Dr. Surandar Singh, who runs the Wentworth Foundation — an orthodontics clinic for underprivileged children with clefts in Durban, South Africa. The Foundation is in one of the poorest parts of the country, and it broke his heart to leave patients without the treatment they needed when the pandemic hit. “COVID was like a nightmare for us,” he said. But even then, Smile Train was there to help him provide lifesaving supplies like masks and hand sanitizer to patients and their families. “We’re very lucky to have Smile Train stretching out their hands and lifting up our organization and our patients,” he explained. “If we are not here, the children would not get the treatment that they need.”
Miriam Nabie, a nutritionist at Smile Train partner IcFEM Dreamland Mission Hospital in Kenya, then narrated how, thanks to Smile Train, she was able to step in during the pandemic to offer the mothers of malnourished babies with clefts the support they needed to get them healthy enough for cleft surgery, including providing them with PPE and even facilitating transport for patients to safely get to the hospital to keep their appointments. She was delighted to note that they saved the lives of 10 babies who had been too undernourished for surgery when she first met them in March. “Nutrition is a critical 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.”
Zozi was left in awe of these heroes and was eager to leverage her title to become a voice for children with clefts in her beloved Africa and around the world. She encouraged the attendees to continue raising awareness about the work that Smile Train does in communities across the continent.