Making children smile

"Making children smile" Continued...

Issue: "The death of discipline?," June 26, 1999

The doctors who go on these trips seem particularly struck by the appreciation the parents express. Their gratitude, Dr. Porter says, is in contrast to the attitude of many patients in the United States: "We expect everything to be perfect, and if it isn't, somebody has to pay. Whereas down there, they expect very little and are incredibly appreciative for what you're giving them."

The families in El Salvador are also more likely to thank God for bringing the American doctors. Even though Austin Smiles is a secular organization and its doctors reflect many different religious backgrounds, Dr. Beckham says the people "are much more open about religious things in Mexico or Central America. The modern idea here is that it must be separated, but most of them are thanking God for us being there. I respond to those things and try to continue in the fact that that's why I'm there because the Lord made it possible."

Not all the patients are children. One man with a grotesque cleft was married with five children of his own. After having his face repaired he said he would go home and kiss his wife for the first time. Another, who was 65, said that after his operation he would get himself a girlfriend-he had never had one. Another man, about 38 and with an unrepaired cleft lip, lived in a smaller village where he met a girl who loved him despite his deformity. They fell in love and married. But he stayed home in their hut while she went out to work because he was ashamed of his face. When he had his lip repaired, he was able to go out and work to support his family.

As Austin Smiles makes progress in the backlog of Salvadoreans needing this surgery, the group has begun to look at expanding to other countries. Recently, Dr. Beckham traveled to Cuba with his church to see if there might be a need for Austin Smiles in that country. He discovered few cleft lips and palates there-and enough local surgeons to do the operations. The Cuban doctors said the reason for the low incidence of clefts was the good nutrition and universal health care available to pregnant women. But one Cuban family practice doctor gave Dr. Beckham another reason: All pregnant women have a sonogram at 20 weeks, and if a cleft is discovered, they are encouraged to have an abortion. Dr. Beckham said, "They don't make them, like in China, but they encourage them, saying, 'We have food rationing and medication rationing, so why have somebody here who doesn't have a better chance of succeeding in life? Why not just abort him?'"

Austin Smiles is proving that these children can have a chance at life. Some doctors volunteer, as Pat Beckham does, out of a desire to serve the Lord: "My whole personal motivation comes out of my missionary experience. I know that 'as much as you've done it to the least of these, you've done it to me.'" Others go out of a more general humanitarian impulse: Jim Fox says, "The reward, I suppose, comes from doing what you know how to do for no other reason than the happiness of doing it for someone who couldn't get it any other way."

But both speak about the miracle of transformation: "Sometimes their mothers aren't sure it's the same kid."

Susan Olasky
Susan Olasky

Susan pens book reviews and other articles for WORLD as a senior writer and has authored eight historical novels for children. Susan and her husband Marvin live in Asheville, N.C. Follow Susan on Twitter @susanolasky.


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