Surgeons are healing broken smiles in Armenia this week

A collaborative effort heals cleft lips and cleft palates

Published: Thursday June 25, 2009

Christine Fonteyn, volunteer operation room nurse, with one of the children being helped by Project Smile, Yerevan, June 23. . Serli Hacikoglu

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Project Smile June 2009

Yerevan - A team of medical professionals headed by Dr. Raj Sarpal, a cardiac anesthesiologist from the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, is in Yerevan to perform free reconstructive surgery on 50 to 55 Armenian children and young adults with cleft lip and cleft palate birth defects. The team on June 21 and 22 assessed over 150 surgical candidates. On the 22nd, the team began performing the life-altering surgeries.

The team is sponsored by the Smile Project, a collaborative mission led by three Minneapolis-based organizations – the Cafesjian Family Foundation (with which this newspaper is affiliated), Hope for the City, and the Smile Network International – in cooperation with the Arabkir Medical Center, Fund for Armenian Relief, Hand in Hand, Yerevan State Medical University, the Armenian Gospel Mission, and the ministries of health of the republics of Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh.

"Like all children, these children are born beautiful, but it is only after this life changing procedure that the entire world sees their beauty," said Tatul Hakobyan, Armenia's deputy minister of health. "Through these life-changing reconstructive surgeries, the children and young adults undergoing those procedures will now receive a smile, and with a smile will come new friends, opportunities, and a better life,"

The Smile Project carried out its first surgical mission in Armenia in October 2008. The surgical team assembled by Smile Network International operated on 51 patients from Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh during that mission.

Leaving back local expertise

After the present mission, the Smile Project "will have addressed the majority of cleft lip and cleft palate needs in Armenia for the next five years, while leaving back local expertise and capacity" to address new cases and existing patients who were not selected for surgery in the two surgical missions, according to Madlene Minassian-Ispirian, who is the director of the project and a financial contributor to it.

Patients with cleft lip or cleft palate have difficulty eating, drinking, and speaking. As a result, they suffer from malnourishment, stunted development, and lethargy. "We are proud that within two years, with the massive support of our partner organizations, we will have addressed the need for a majority of Armenia's congenital cleft lip and cleft palate population" said Hrachya Arshakyan, a plastic surgeon at Arabkir Medical Center. Dr. Arshakyan has been instrumental in implementing the project.

Arabkir Medical Center hosts the surgeries. The center and Armenia's Ministry of Health cover costs related to patients' hospital stay. Smile Network International covers transportation and lodging costs as well as many costs related to the surgeries. The volunteers are hosted by efforts of the Cafesjian Family Foundation and Hope for the City, which provide ground transportation and meals. Patient expenses such as transportation, food, and lodging are covered by the Fund for Armenian Relief. Yerevan State Medical University organizes lectures by Smile Network International surgeons and sends residents to train with the visiting medical staff.

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