It’s all smiles |

It’s all smiles

Operation Smile targets low-income children around the world

Chris Weatherly-White, a plastic surgeon from Steamboat Springs, operates on a child during a trip to Vietnam in May. Weatherly-White was among three local medical professionals to make the trip with Operation Smile.
Courtesy Photo

International operation

Operation Smile volunteers have treated more than 98,000 children and young adults from around the world during the past 23 years. Operation Smile's roster of mission partners totals 24 countries, including those in Latin America, Asia, Europe and Africa.

Operation Smile is hosting a fundraising event showcasing ethnic food, culture, dance and art from 6 to 10 p.m. Sept. 14 in Denver. The benefit and live auction has limited space so people are encouraged to call Kathy McKinley at 846-3146 as soon as possible. To make donations or to learn more about Operation Smile, visit or call 1-888-OPSMILE.

— Kathy McKinley apologized. Several of her photos from Vietnam were graphic.

“Sometimes, people need to see how deformed these children are to see why we are going in to help,” she said. “Vietnam has the highest birth defect rate in the world.”

The desire to help Vietnamese children pulled McKinley, an operating room nurse, and fellow Steamboat Springs residents Eric Meyer, an anesthesiologist, and Chris Weatherly-White, a plastic surgeon, to southeast Asia from May 16 to 30.

The trio was part of a 50-person crew from Operation Smile, an international mission organization that fixes cleft lips and cleft palates for children around the world.

Cleft lips and cleft palates are one of the world’s more common birth defects. In developing countries, one child out of every 500 is born with a cleft lip or cleft palate, McKinley said.

The rate is less in developed countries such as the United States, where children often receive medical treatment in the first week of life.

Operation Smile targets poor, developing countries with limited access to medical care.

Oral-facial clefts are birth defects in which the tissues of the mouth or lip don’t form properly during fetal development. If left untreated, cleft palates can lead to malnutrition because the sinus cavity and mouth become one.

“Children will drink milk and it will come out their nose,” McKinley said.

A child with a cleft lip or palate also tends to be more susceptible to colds, hearing loss, speech defects and ear infections because their Eustachian tubes don’t drain fluid properly from the middle ear into the throat, according to

But a cleft lip or cleft palate doesn’t stop a child from smiling, and McKinley said the trio’s trip to Vietnam was a powerful, albeit difficult, one. They spent time in villages and in cities.

“We try to find medical facilities safe for us to work in,” McKinley said. “When you go on a mission like this, you leave a part of your heart. You do surgeries until surgeries are done. (They are) 14- to 15-hour days in 95-degree heat.”

Although Operation Smile is an international organization, McKinley, Meyer and Weatherly-White helped leave a piece of Steamboat for Vietnam’s youths. The Women’s Hospital Auxiliary at Yampa Valley Medical Center donated 150 white teddy bears bearing the word Steamboat.

“When we go in, it is with no agenda other than helping children,” said McKinley, who added that occasionally the Vietnamese are apprehensive of mission workers. “When Americans and people from all over the world work together, it (creates) a different attitude of Westerners.”

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