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Changing Lives, One Smile at a Time

There’s no universal language as compelling as the smiling face of a child. Just ask William P. Magee Jr., MD ’72, a leading plastic and craniofacial surgeon who has devoted the past quarter century to putting smiles on some 100,000 young faces around the globe.

William P. Magee Jr., MD ’72, shows a child in Vietnam his reflection. Magee is co-founder and CEO of Operation Smile, which provides free reconstructive surgery to indigent children around the world with cleft lips, cleft palates, and other correctable facial deformities.

As co-founder and CEO of Operation Smile, he’s transformed lives in more than 25 developing countries, providing free reconstructive surgery to indigent children with cleft lips, cleft palates, and other correctable facial deformities. Since establishing the not-for-profit volunteer medical services organization in 1982 with his wife, Kathleen, Magee has built a network of thousands of dedicated surgeons and healthcare professionals who donate their time, skills, and expertise for a couple of weeks each year to offer new life and hope to needy kids. Many GW Medical Center alumni and faculty members have served as Operation Smile volunteers over the years, including John F. Williams, MD ’79, EdD ’96, the University’s provost and vice president for health affairs.

Operation Smile, which Magee says is as life changing for the volunteers as it is for the beneficiaries, was born of guilt, he says. “In 1982, Kathy and I traveled to the Philippines with a team of medical volunteers from Houston, Texas, to repair children’s cleft lips and cleft palates,” he reflects. The scene that greeted the couple haunted them long after they returned home. “Hundreds of children ravaged by life-threatening facial deformities were waiting for us, their families begging for help,” he states. Although they operated on as many children as they could that week, time and manpower constraints compelled them to turn more than 250 children away. Before boarding their plane for home, the Magees promised that they would return as soon as they could to help more children. “We solicited donations of surgical equipment and supplies, assembled a volunteer team, and went back the following year, and the year after that, operating on several hundred more kids, but continued to turn hundreds away,” Magee says.

The mission increased in scope after Magee received a letter from Mother Theresa asking him to come to India to treat deformed children. Numerous other requests for help began flooding in from around the world. Before long, the Norfolk, Va., resident was coordinating surgical missions to places like Kenya, Colombia, and Vietnam, and the list continues to grow each year.

A long-time proponent of experiencing the world beyond your own borders, globetrotting is nothing new to Magee. As a GW medical student, he completed a three-month elective course in Zurich, Switzerland with the renowned maxillofacial surgeon Hugo L. Obwegeser. As a resident, Magee received a Hays-Fulbright grant to study in Paris for six months with Paul Tessier, widely regarded as the father of craniofacial surgery. “We had four young kids and another on the way at the time, but he was the biggest name in the world in craniofacial surgery, and I couldn’t turn down the chance to study with him,” Magee says. “It was a monumental step in my life, because it set the stage for my plastic surgery training, my practice, and, ultimately, Operation Smile.”

The second oldest of 12 children, Magee grew up in Fort Lee, N.J., where his father was one of two family practitioners in town. “I enjoyed watching how gently and well he interacted with his patients and how much he loved medicine,” Magee says. “Although I wasn’t much of a student at the time, I was always pretty sure that I would follow in his footsteps.”

Magee earned his bachelor’s degree at Mount St. Mary’s College in Emmitsburg, Md., and his dentistry degree at the University of Maryland before applying to GW Medical School. “GW is a great medical school that fosters out-of-the-box thinking,” he states. “The University’s excellence, coupled with its location in an international city, made it the perfect place for me to study medicine.”

He remains a consistent presence at his alma mater, speaking to GW medical school graduates several years ago, as well as at last year’s White Coat ceremony for incoming medical students. Magee says he derives great satisfaction from “encouraging younger people entering the profession to recognize that there’s power in medicine and to step outside of the box to become a real resource for their country. They’ll find tremendous excitement and energy in sacrificing a little bit of themselves for others in need.”

Humanitarian and distinguished service awards have rained down on Magee, who has trained hundreds of international physicians in advanced craniofacial surgical techniques. Accolades, however nice, pale in comparison to the joy he receives from the simple act of helping these children. “It’s transformational in the way you look at life,” states Magee, whose ultimate goal is to raise enough funds to establish medical centers throughout the world to take care of children all year.

“We have the ability to conduct medical diplomacy, regardless of nationality, religion, culture, or creed, but simply because it’s the right thing to do,” he says. “The kids that we operated on during the first years in the Philippines have now graduated from college. One is now a singer, another is the coordinator of Operation Smile’s Speakers Bureau. Through Operation Smile, we have a chance to take people who are literally imprisoned in their own bodies and give them back their lives. It’s incredibly powerful.”

—Jamie L. Freedman