Smile Train and Surgical Volunteers International To Repair Clefts in Haiti

By Bryan Schaaf on Monday, January 19, 2009.

Below is a blog concerning Smile Train, an organization that works with health care providers throughout the developing world to repair cleft lips and palates.  Smile Train will send a Surgical Volunteers International Team to Port au Prince from February 27- March 7.  While there, the team will both perform surgeries and teach local surgeons to do the same. This approach is cost-effective and builds local capacity. If you or a colleagues knows of a Haitian child with a cleft, please contact Smile Train and Surgical Volunteers International prior to the trip.


There are several causes of clefts, the most important of which is your race and family history. Asians and Latinos are the most prone to this condition. Other factors are a lack of folic acid in the first trimester, smoking, chemical exposure such as pesticides, and giving birth while very young or very old. Genetic counseling is recommended but this is not available in most developing countries. 



Once a child is born with a cleft lip or palate the only treatment is surgery. Techniques have been developed over the years that allow for a complete cure with minimal complications. In developed countries cleft lips are treated within the first three months. Cleft palates are usually operated on at about a year. If a child has a cleft palate unrepaired until after they begin speaking, they may develop a nasal type of speech. Even with surgery to correct the defect, they may still have speech impediments. They can also have increased problems with ear infections which untreated they can have hearing problems.



The problem with cleft lip patients is cosmetic, but still very important. The children may be shunned and have a life of embarrassment and reduced opportunities.  Other children can be cruel to them. In many countries, clefts are viewed as a curse and children are given up by their parents or kept hidden away and not allowed to attend school or to work. If we can fix them early on, they can live a normal life. A typical surgery takes 45 minutes to one hour on the average. When performed by a experienced team the results are dramatic, instant, and safe. 



This trip to Haiti is the first mission sponsored by Smile Train. Smile Train was formed 10 years ago in New York City. At that time most cleft charities sent teams to the site and performed surgery for a week or so. Smile train had another approach. Smile Train's focus was to train and fund the local doctors to perform the surgery under strict safety and reporting guidelines. It allows Smile Train to fund cleft surgery for about $250 per child while still maintaining the standards that we expect here.



Surgical Volunteers International brings teams of surgeons and support staff to perform surgery and provides training. A typical trip lasts one week. We are an all volunteer group of medical professionals. All surgery is provided at no cost to the patient. Smile Train sponsors groups like ours to serve poor children in areas where they do not have existing partner hospitals and where no qualified surgeons exist. Haiti is one of those countries.



There are just not enough trained surgeons in the country to take care of the 6,000 patients with clefts and charitable work by doctors here appears virtually non-existent. During our March trip we will collaborate with Smile Train and do two things: Train local surgeons, Anesthesiologists, and nurses. We expect to also provide surgery to over 50 children. These smiles last a lifetime. It is our goal and that of Smile Train to work ourselves out of a job by eliminating the backlog of clefts and train local surgeons to keep up with the demand in their own backyard.



You can find more information on Smile Train at their web site.  They also maintain a publically-accessible, online library with thousands of articles on clefts.  If you would like to support Smile Train, you can make a donation online.  Please contact Smile Train and SVI if you know of a Haitian child with a cleft.

Good blog. I am also a

Good blog. I am also a Smile Train donor and really love to hear success stories like this. The only thing I would like to add is that cleft palates are not just cosmetic, often the children can't breath or eat very easily and can be very hard from a physical standpoint as well.

surgical mission

I would like to report that the trip to Haiti was a great success. We were able to provide surgical services for 70 patients of which 67 were either cleft lip and palate patients. Many of the patients have suffered for years without any hope of a cure. the team was leased to be able to help so many of these patients. Even though we did a large number of patients we were forced to turn over 40 patients away without treatment. We are committed to return to haiti in the near future. You can see some photos at


Tom Flood RN

That's really remarkable,

That's really remarkable, keeping prices as low as $250 is really what will allow this to take off. Keep up the great work and I'm glad to see organizations like this out there. Fantastic!

Cleft lip

Hi Kevin,
Please contact anyone that you know in Haiti and have them help in locating patients. This is a long term project and we need lots of help locating patients.


Tom Flood RN
Surgical Volunteers International

good work

This is a very interesting news Brian. It is good to know that an organization like Smile Train volunteers to help people in need of cleft surgery. The people in Haiti would really be thankful for this free surgery, for this would help improve their well-being.

Surgical Mission

If you would like to register a patient please call
3405-5815/ 3404-5014

Thank You

Tom Flood

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