Changing lives in Ghana, one cleft lip repair surgery at a time

Operation Smile is working with DHL Global Forwarding Ghana to provide better access to safe surgical care, for those with cleft lip and cleft palate.
Operation Smile Ghana Cleft Surgery
24 June 2020

For 17 years, Faustina Tsifokor endured the stigma that follows those born with cleft-lip in rural Ghanaian communities. Her parents — protective but unable to afford surgery for their daughter — kept her at home, out of school and the public eye.

Cleft lip and cleft palate are congenital facial defects that occur in one of roughly 750 babies in Ghana. Due to local superstitions, the condition can subject families to social isolation and in the worst cases, children have been abandoned or killed.

In late 2017, Tsifokor’s fate took a turn. Her father, who had searched tirelessly for affordable surgery for his daughter, secured her a spot in an Operation Smile mission in nearby Koforidua. After passing health checks, Tsifokor’s cleft lip was repaired, changing her life for the better.

Operation Smile Koforidua patient Faustina Tsifokor

“I have been praying to get this surgery,” the teenager told volunteers. Today, Tsifokor is training to be a seamstress in her hometown of Amoya.

Operation Smile: creating a world with universal access to critical healthcare

Operation Smile is a non-profit medical organization that was founded in 1982. It has since grown active in over 60 countries, providing free and safe surgeries for patients born with cleft conditions and other facial defects.

“Operation Smile believes that safe surgical care is an essential component of healthcare and a universal human right,” said co-founder and President Kathleen Magee.

“We are making a significant investment to support the UN Sustainable Development Goals because this fits squarely into [our vision and mission] to create a world where no child or adult suffers from lack of access to care.”

Forwarding the mission to empower cleft patients with safe surgeries

Strategic partnerships have been vital to the program’s success. Working with local healthcare providers, medical volunteers help to improve long-term surgical capacities by training local surgeons. Throughout the missions, Operation Smile and its partners also provide transport, accommodation and meals for patients and their caregivers.

Since 2011, employees of DHL Global Forwarding Ghana have been avid supporters of Operation Smile’s work. For almost a decade, the team has provided free logistics solutions to transport Operation Smile’s mobile surgical units across the country.

“On top of working with local healthcare providers and NGOs, Operation Smile realized the need for a reliable logistics partner,” said Benjamin Bello, a Human Resources coordinator at DHL who helped to lead the project.

DGF Ghana operation smile volunteers

“At the start, support was mainly from the field team that ensured smooth clearance of materials from the port and our road freight team which transported the cargo to and from the various health facilities for the operations,” he added.

Elaborating further on the role DHL plays within Operation Smile, Bello said: “We move approximately 3 tonnes of medicines and surgical equipment from Kotoka International Airport (KIA) to where missions are carried out, and these journeys that can take up to two days each.

“These locations include Tamale Teaching Hospital, Volta Regional Hospital and Koforidua Regional Hospital, broadly distributed across Ghana’s wide, low-lying geography.”

Cityscape view of Accra Ghana
A bird’s-eye view of Ghana’s capital, Accra.

Bello added the opportunity was initially embraced as part of DHL’s global corporate citizenship mission of ‘Connecting People, Improving Lives’ but to the local team, the project has become “much more than that”.

Paying it forward in the years to come

In 2018, a visit to Ho Regional Hospital to interact with the Operation Smile Team renewed DHL’s commitment to give back to the local community through the project. Ghana’s national healthcare issues have historically been a hurdle to its otherwise positive development.

The chance to personally interact with Operation Smile’s medical volunteers and patients helped the team at DHL to better understand how missions were changing lives.

operation smile DGF staff collage

Over 250 patients from all over Ghana were part of this mission, and staff volunteers dived in to help with administrative work and to settle patients in. Today, each mission sees a team of about a dozen DHL staff helping out with patient registration, documentation and hospitality.

According to Bello, staff volunteers are becoming increasingly enthusiastic to sign up for Operation Smile missions.

“This partnership between DHL and Operation Smile has grown over the years thanks to the enthusiasm of my colleagues and the support of our senior management team,” he remarked.

“Our department heads face quite a challenge, as their staff look forward to the next call for volunteers.”

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