September 13, 2004

Giving Children Smiles: Dr. William Magee

by Anne Moore

The movie Doc Hollywood presents the classic view of the plastic surgeon. The main character is on his way to Hollywood to become a plastic surgeon when he crashes his Porsche and is forced to work as a general practitioner in the small town where he's been stranded. The emptiness and lack of meaning of his chosen profession highlight the homespun wisdom of small-town Americans. This movie reflects my faulty ideas about clear oppositions between good and bad--there are certain places where it's possible to do important work and be spiritual, and places where meaningful action is impossible. The work of Dr. William Magee reminds me of how unwise it is to make generalizations.

Overturning stereotypical ideas about plastic surgeons (i.e. golf and fancy cars), Dr. Magee and Operation Smile have devoted twenty years to providing free facial reconstructive surgery to more than 45,000 indigent children from underdeveloped countries. Without surgery, most of these kids will be hidden away, leading what Magee calls "a life of death." For the children on whom he has operated, Magee has opened the door into a "normal" life: a family, a job, a place in society.

Operation Smile began with a trip Magee took to the Philippines in 1982 to gain experience as a plastic surgeon. Although he was able to operate on 150 children, he felt guilty for every lost opportunity to do more surgery. The operation only takes an hour, a fact Magee was struck by every day on his lunch break--in the time he took to eat, he could be giving another child a new face. Because the work was too much for one person, and too important to abandon, he recruited more doctors, eventually developing a network of plastic surgeons willing to volunteer their time all over the world.

I think it's fair to say that plastic surgery is an outcropping of a privileged culture. But Magee has found a way to use his privilege to help others, transforming first-world-guilt into compassionate action. Perhaps there is an opportunity for service in any situation and all we have to do is look for it.

(ed. note: see for more on the story of Operation Smile)

Posted on September 13, 2004 6:41 PM

Is it now called THE SMILE TRAIN?
I purchased a SMILE last Christmas, a wonderful idea, to see a child smile is priceless.

Posted by: Carol Preiss on June 1, 2010 10:46 AM
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