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news News Friday, February 9, 2018 Friday, January 26, 2018 8:29 PM - Friday, January 26, 2018 8:29 PM

Closing the gap

A surgeon’s dedication to repairing cleft lips and palates of children near and far

Closing the gap

In 1982, William Magee, III, M.D., D.D.S.; his father, a pediatric plastic surgeon; and his mother, a nurse, traveled with a small team to the Philippines to operate on local children born with cleft lip and cleft palate not knowing the number of children who would arrive. Expecting only 50 children, they were very surprised when 200 showed up! Realizing the number of children seeking help, they knew there needed to be a larger initiative to care for them. They returned home, formed Operation Smile, staffed up and fundraised. Soon they were barnstorming on surgical missions to impoverished populations — in Vietnam, Mexico and Honduras. Over the next three decades-plus, Operation Smile would repair the facial deformities of children in more than 60 countries.

In the early years of Operation Smile, Dr. Magee would start traveling to different countries participating in this mission with his parents to the Middle East and Africa. One recollection he shares is walking with his father through a burn ward in Nairobi. “All you could see was the glare of the kids’ eyes as you were walking down the hallway,” Magee says, a moment that never left him and the reason why he is doing the work he does now.  

As the director of plastics program at Shriners for Children Medical Center, Magee continues to work closely with Operation Smiles, traveling on two or three surgical missions a year. He also helps design training programs for surgeons in those developing countries. As he continues his work – whether in the U.S. or another part of the world – one question always arises – 'Why is this condition  occurring so frequently?'

To find out Magee launched the International Family Study, gathering resources from his Operation Smiles program and the University of Southern California, where he is an associate professor in the department of surgery and global health. The study is exploring close to 14,000 DNA samples drawn from families affected by the deformity to get to the cause of cleft lip. He is hopeful the results of the study can produce a cure. “There’s a high likelihood that someday,” Magee says, “in the right lab with the right tools, people will understand clefts to the degree that many of them will be cured."

William Magee, III, M.D., D.D.S., is the chief of plastics and the director of the cleft lip and palate program at Shriners for Children Medical Center, board certified by the American Board of Plastic Surgery, and is also a surgeon in the Division of Plastic and Maxillofacial Surgery at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles.