It's very easy for those living in so-called developed
countries to forget some of the miracles that our forebears have
worked, which make our lives much easier than they would otherwise
This is true in many areas of life, but today I'm talking particularly
about medicine. It hasn't been all that long
since the word "polio"
brought terror to the hearts of parents in the United States;
a quarter of the population has never even heard of it. And every day
we wash our hands with antibacterial soap
and drink our
pasteurized milk, mostly without even noticing.
Sometimes, these things do trigger a moment of reflection in me,
and I give thanks for the health advances that we've been the
recipients of over the years. I hope you do, too. But today, I
learned of one that I really didn't even know about
I've heard the term cleft lip before, though I didn't
really know what it meant, and as is no doubt the case with virtually
all of you reading this, I've never seen one. Today I learned that
clefts (cleft lips and cleft palates),
a birth defect, occurs in about one in 500 babies,
and the pictures I'm looking at show me much more than the little
scar that I'd always imagined a cleft lip to be (probably from seeing
a few people in my life who had had them repaired). The reason they
pass mostly unnoticed is that cleft lips are generally corrected
surgically, either before the baby leaves the hospital or within
three or four months thereafter; palates are corrected, usually
with a series (sometimes twenty or more!) of operations usually
before the teen years.
That's for us, the lucky ones.
In third world countries, babies with clefts often get no
treatment for them. The cosmetic and social problems are
not the only ones these babies have to contend with throughout
their lives. Health problems begin immediately, as they are unable
to nurse, and have a much greater than normal incidence of ear infections. As they grow, they may never learn to speak properly,
and sometimes cannot even eat. Thousands are abandoned each year; communities shun them. Which may be okay by Darwin, but we like to think of ourselves as "advanced" when we turn that law on its head.
I learned all of this because of a pamphlet I received from
TheSmileTrain, a charitable organization dedicated to
treatment and prevention of clefts.
Operating in 52 countries around the world, running the gamut
from China to Haiti to Russia and the United States, they
provide free operations to correct clefts, performed by local
doctors to whom they've given free training in this specialty. Unlike
the thousands of dollars involved in a normal U.S. case, the simplest
procedure (unilateral cleft lip repair) can be done for about US$250 on the
average. Those procedures take less than an hour, and
one of the
most amazing aspects is the world of difference in the appearance
before and after the operation; the healing time is literally
measured in hours — a few mothers have failed to recognize
their children afterward. And yet, particularly in the poor parts
of the world, it can make all the difference in that person's
A feature of the way SmileTrain works, which is new to me and
is certainly unusual if not novel in the world of charities,
is that when you send a donation to them, 100% of it
is used for their programs. This is possible because the overhead
of the organization (office, salaries, even fundraising drives)
is completely covered by endowments from the founding supporters
(who include George Bush, Candice Bergen, and Walter Cronkite).
This is what made me glad to begin a monthly donation regimen.
Other charities I support annoy me by sending newsletters and
related items, or even receipts for my donations; I hate that
my money is used, even in part, for such things instead of for
the purposes for which I give it.
And even though the non-program expenses are covered by the
founders, they still run lean and mean. Currently they
operate with a staff of thirteen persons, and overhead is kept
to less than 15% of donations.
Since 1999, they've trained over ten thousand doctors in
cleft repair surgery and eighty five thousand children have had
a lifetime of anguish pre-empted. About one hundred children
every day are now being treated, but there are many times that
many still to be reached.
We tend to think of high-tech cures for cancer
or AIDS as
the medical breakthroughs that would profoundly change our
world. But the major health problems in the world are simple,
and fixable if we have the will. (One of the biggest causes
of death in the world is simple diarrhoea.) TheSmileTrain is
a way you can help. I invite you to join me.