28 Sep 2015 19:55 IST

Leaving a train of smiles behind

Surgically correcting a cleft lip or palate takes a mere 45 minutes and, through Smile Train, it costs as little as $250

Before 2008, five-year-old Pinki Sonkar was not allowed to attend school. Nor was she able to play with children her own age. She led a life of quiet desperation, hoping against hope that someday, someone would come along and fix her face.

Her village, Rampur Dahaba, in Mirzapur district, near Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh is one of the poorest parts of India. And to be born here with a severe cleft lip, like Pinki was, meant that not only was one ostracised for life, but that one was also unable to afford surgery for a perfectly curable affliction.

But soon, something remarkable happened: Pinki’s parents met a social worker who was rounding up patients for a hospital that provides free cleft lip and palate surgery. This is the GS Memorial Hospital in Varanasi, where, in partnership with the international children's charity Smile Train, plastic surgeon Dr Subodh Kumar Singh performed corrective surgery on Pinki.

Now, Pinki smiles like everyone else.

Director Megan Mylan, Pinki, and Dr Dr Subodh Kumar Singh

But Pinki’s tale, captured in the Academy-award winning documentary called Smile Pinki (2009), directed by Megan Mylan, in which she starred, isn’t the only such story.

Incidence across regions

Every year, in the developing world alone, 1.70 lakh children are born with cleft lip and/or palate. The incidence of cleft lip is the same for the developing and the developed world. No one knows why it happens and such facial and oral malformations don’t target the poor alone. The difference is that it gets corrected at birth in the West because doctors are aware of the condition and how simple it is to correct it. Sometimes the surgery takes a mere 45 minutes and, through Smile Train, it costs as little as $250!, said Satish Kalra, Chief Programme Officer of Smile Train. Kalra was speaking on the sidelines of a two-day knowledge-sharing session for surgeons associated with the organisation that took place in Chennai recently.

Satish Kalra, Chief Programme Officer of Smile Train

“In developing countries, though, millions of children, unable to afford this treatment, live in shame and, more importantly, have difficulty eating, speaking and even breathing owing to an unrepaired cleft lip and/or palate,” he added.

Smile Train, a US-based NGO, recognises this need and provides training and funding in more than 85 developing countries to provide 100-per cent free cleft repair and related surgeries. “Hospitals keen to partner with us apply to Smile Train and undergo an accreditation process by our Medical Advisory Board. Once they are approved, they undertake surgeries for Smile Train where we bear the entire cost of the operation,” he said.

Corporate support

Kalra is also looking to build corporate support from India Inc, as donors, to assist in Smile Train’s activities. It’s rather ironic though that for surgeries that take place in India, a large part of the funding still comes from abroad, despite the CSR Act.

“We tell them (corporates) that a child gets operated and is able to go to school, learn a trade and get a job. Hence, after the surgery, a child becomes a productive member of the society and in effect, perhaps, a future consumer of their products,” added Kalra. While there are many other worthy causes such as education, and sanitation, which could use the funding, the impact, when it comes to donating to Smile Train, is more immediate because the condition is easily rectifiable, he said.

Likewise, Kalra believes that Smile Train being registered as a Section 25 not-for-profit corporation, and not a society, enables it to be subject to scrutiny and checks and balances, thereby making it a secure proposition for corporate looking to engage in philanthropic activities.

A unique facet about Smile Train’s model is that it, like the cleft lip and palate condition, doesn’t differentiate between the rich and poor.

“We do not determine if the patient is of BPL status, as long as they are willing to undergo the same treatment as others,” he added. So, if, say, the child of a millionaire is brought in to a Smile Train partner hospital: he/she can either undergo the surgery through Smile Train’s scheme without paying anything or can pay the hospital’s rate for a surgery.

The goal is to provide every child born with a cleft lip anywhere in the world, irrespective of class, the opportunity to live a full and productive life, he added.

*Photographs: Courtesy Smile Train

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