An avid traveler, Glendale pediatric hospitalist Dr. Shelly Batra longed to try international medicine. When her friend, a child life specialist, introduced her to Operation Smile, Batra said it gave her the chance of a lifetime.
“At the time I was introduced to Operation Smile, I was going through a rough patch in my personal life,” she said about 2014.
“Being able to provide care for people who either don’t have access or don’t have the resources has always been something that I’ve been interested in. I was never really sure how to do it. Operation Smile gave me that platform to be able to not only do what I love but also be able to do it in an environment that’s built on providing quality care.”
Operation Smile is a nonprofit organization that assists patients who have a cleft condition. A cleft lip or cleft palate is a gap in the mouth that didn’t close during the early stages of pregnancy. Cleft conditions are primarily caused by genetics, medical conditions or exposure to harmful substances.
According to Operation Smile, every 3 minutes a child is born with a cleft condition worldwide. While this statistic is daunting, as many as 9 in 10 people have difficulties accessing basic medical care, such as surgeries. This means several kids with a cleft condition will have to experience bullying if their condition isn’t surgically fixed.
This is where Operation Smile comes in. The nonprofit’s volunteer medical workers provide care to patients who wouldn’t have access to these kinds of procedures at any other hospital.
Batra, who sees patients at Banner Thunderbird Medical Center, has a background in volunteering but never for a medical nonprofit organization.
“As a kid and a teenager in college I volunteered with other groups but mainly local things,” she said.
Operation Smile is the first medical nonprofit for which she has volunteered. She gave this organization a shot because she wanted to “practice medicine and do what I love to do.”
Since she started volunteering for the nonprofit, she has been on 11 missions. Batra has traveled to Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, Vietnam, Morocco, Ghana, Madagascar, the Philippines twice, and Mexico three times.
Though Batra said while all the trips are special, her top three missions are Vietnam, Morocco and Ghana. The missions in Morocco and Ghana were very educational.
“I had the opportunity not only to learn new things myself but to teach local and international physicians how to manage the pre- and post-operative care of our cleft patients,” Batra said.
The Vietnam trip was Batra’s second mission with Operation Smile. It was dubbed a MEGA mission, one in which multiple medical teams in different cities throughout the country perform surgery on patients with a cleft condition during the same week.
“It was so amazing to watch all these people from all over the world come together for this single mission,” Batra said. “It was long, hard, tiring and hot. But the smiles were worth every single minute.”
Operation Smile is multifaceted, she said. Not only does it provide medical care to patients with cleft conditions, but it has nutrition, speech and dietary services to help its patients before and after surgery. Batra is one of the medical providers who trains future volunteers for Operation Smile.
“I will train medical residents and fellows to keep the line going,” Batra said.
Batra is a pediatric hospitalist who works with a lot of newborns.
“Sometimes we’ll get families who did not know that they were going to have a child with a cleft lip or cleft palate or any sort of craniofacial condition,” Batra said.
When this situation arises, Batra refers the patients to her Operation Smile network if the patients are unable to get their care locally.
“Having a network of people to be able to refer to is a huge asset to me. And then in turn becomes an asset to my patients,” Batra said.
Patients with cleft conditions require several follow-up appointments after surgery. Many times, the medical volunteers will stay connected with their patients.
“The beautiful thing is your patients recognize you. They’ll remember you,” Batra said.
While Batra enjoys volunteering for Operation Smile, she would like to see more people doing what they love.
“If you’re thinking about doing something on a regular basis, just do it. Don’t wait. Don’t pass Go and collect $200,” Batra said. “Life’s too short to miss out on an opportunity to help others.”