Nursing lecturer fixes children’s smiles

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Lee O’Malley with one of the children who underwent cleft surgery. Photo: Operation Smile: Rohanna Mertens

A smile costs nothing, but creates so much. Lee O’Malley has been giving children the gift of a smile and creating a new world of opportunities for more than eighteen years.

The USQ Ipswich nursing lecturer is deeply passionate about the life-changing work she does across the globe with Operation Smile.

The international charity provides free corrective surgeries for people born with cleft lips, cleft palates or other dental and facial conditions in developing countries.

Ms O’Malley’s latest trip to Antsirabe, Madagascar was her 35th mission with Operation Smile.

She served as a clinical nursing coordinator and worked with 87 clinical volunteers, including plastic surgeons, anaesthetists, nurses and a paediatrician, from 14 different counties to perform 136 surgeries in less than five days.

Ms O’Malley said people walked for days in the hope of receiving the surgery.

“For those children whose condition is severe, and don’t receive this corrective surgery, they are at great risk of malnourishment and starvation as their parents struggle to feed them,” she said.

“As part of the mission, we also provide dedicated training and education to teach the local nurses and doctors how to perform the surgery so they can continue the work themselves.”

Apart from eating and drinking, cleft conditions can affect speech and language development, social skills and behaviour, which can lead to barriers in education and employment.

Ms O’Malley started volunteering with Operation Smile in 2000 and has been on missions in 20 countries, including the Philippines, India, Congo, Kenya, Egypt, Honduras, Nicaragua, China, Ethiopia, Brazil and Peru.

Ms O’Malley said she is proud to be a contributor to the thousands of smiles that have been created by the teams she has worked with.

“The impact these surgeries have on people is truly life-changing, not just for the patient but their family as well.”

Ms O’Malley’s volunteer work extends well beyond cleft surgeries, flying to Haiti in 2010 to coordinate life-saving treatments and procedures for earthquake victims and working in humanitarian missions in East Timor and the Jordan-Syria border in 2008 and 2012 respectively.

Ms O’Malley hoped her experiences would inspire nursing students to consider volunteering for Operation Smile or similar health care organisations.

“It’s a great opportunity to experience what it is like to work with people and patients from different cultures and improve your communication skills, which adds a lot of value to a resume,” she said.

“It shows you are open-minded, can work outside your comfort zone, are flexible and adaptive to a changing environment and can work with a team, despite a language barrier.”

Ms O’Malley’s commitment to the cause shows no signs of slowing down with plans to head to Malawi in December.

For more information about Operation Smile Australia, visit www.operationsmile.org.au.
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