Loyola honors couple for aiding afflicted children


October 07, 1991|By Randi Henderson

WHEN WILLIAM AND KATHLEEN MAGEE TALK about the hundreds of children around the world whose lives they have improved with reconstructive facial surgery, they tend to speak of their own gains, not of the children's.

"We asked for nothing, yet they gave everything," Dr. Bill Magee says of his young patients and their families. "A thank you, a smile, a tear running down a cheek, a basket of bananas and an understanding of what's important in life."

In 1982, the Magees founded Operation Smile International, an organization that sends teams of plastic and oral surgeons and supporting medical staff to developing countries around the world to operate on children with facial deformities.

Based in Norfolk, Va., where the Magees live, the organization can claim credit for correcting conditions such as cleft lip, facial tumors and other debilitating deformities in 5,000 children.

From a shoestring operation, Operation Smile has grown to one with an annual budget of nearly $1.5 million. Some 20,000 volunteer hours will be contributed this year for missions in seven countries.

On Saturday Dr. Magee, a dentist and plastic surgeon, and his wife, a nurse and clinical social worker, were awarded honorary degrees by Loyola College. Baltimore is familiar territory for the Magees: Their son, Todd, is a Loyola junior, their daughter Brigette works for the Johns Hopkins Children's Center's Child Life program. And the couple lived here in the late '60s when Dr. Magee was a University of Maryland dental student and Mrs. Magee worked as a public health nurse.

While accepting their degrees, they spoke to Loyola students about how working hard can make dreams come true, and how sharing talents and abilities can help a person grow. And afterward, they mused on the paths that their lives have taken.

"Everything in our lives has been pretty much by chance," said Dr. Magee, 47. "One thing led to another."

"We've always focused our life on children," added Mrs. Magee, 46. "I was one of four, Bill was one of 12 and we had five. I guess it was inevitable."

Dr. Magee went directly from dental school into medical school, attracted to plastic surgery, he said, because of the way it highlighted "the relation between the physical and psychological."

It's a connection that still fascinates him. Whether he's doing a nose job or correcting a cleft lip, the principle is the same, he has found.

"Everything has to do with body image," he said. "If people are unhappy and you can improve their image of themselves, you can make them more productive as human beings."

It was in 1981, relatively early in his career as a plastic surgeon, that Dr. and Mrs. Magee joined a group brought together by a Houston surgeon to travel to the Philippines to help children with facial deformities.

"We were just going over to take care of a bunch of kids," he remembers. "I thought it was a good idea so I could get technically better at surgery. And we saw this incredible need. How could we just come home and forget about it?"

"These kids were just coming out of the woodwork," Mrs. Magee added. "In the Philippines there were 38 plastic surgeons for a population of 58 million. We saw hundreds of kids who needed help."

In fact, the incidence of facial deformities in the Philippines and other developing countries is 1 in 800, nearly twice that of the United States. Although researchers have not established the reason for this, Dr. Magee speculated that genetic inbreeding and poor maternal nutrition could be contributing factors.

The Magees began fund-raising and organizing a program that helped children not only in the Philippines but also in China, Panama, Romania, Kenya, Vietnam and Colombia -- so far. Mrs. Magee is now the full-time administrator for Operation Smile; Dr. Magee volunteers at least 20 hours a week.

And the rest of the family is involved, too. Brigette, their oldest daughter, was 14 when her parents made their second trip to the Philippines in 1982 and she accompanied them, putting in 14-hour days assisting in the operating room. Todd has been to Vietnam, the Philippines, Colombia and China and is active at home with the Happy Clubs, volunteer groups of teen-agers who help raise money for Operation Smile.

"It makes you feel good," Todd, a 20-year-old finance major, said of his motivation for working for Operation Smile. "You're giving to someone and they usually give back to you without saying anything. It's something intangible, but it's there."

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