Engineered for Healing: Operation Smile Colombia

Operation Smile Colombia co-founder Carlos Arturo Vargas. Photo: Jasmin Shah.

As the owner of a Colombian metallurgical engineering company, Carlos Arturo Vargas was once an unlikely candidate to become a co-founder of one of his country’s leading medical non-profit organisations.

Or was he?

In the years after his 15-month-old son died in a car accident, Carlos Arturo searched for meaning and purpose through the tragedy.

“It was tremendously terrible,” said Carlos Arturo, reflecting on the immeasurable loss. “Even though everyone said, ‘They’ll never understand why he was brought into this world,’ I made the decision that he had a mission and that we had to accept that.”

When Carlos Arturo’s cousin and business partner, Antonio Vargas, returned from a visit to the United States telling him about a family member’s involvement with Operation Smile, he knew that his son’s mission had finally been revealed – 15 years after his passing.

“We slowly forgot about it, until this new situation arrived providentially, and we embraced it,” Carlos Arturo said. “Not just me, but my whole family.”

Driven to honour his son’s memory, Carlos Arturo and Antonio decided to connect with Operation Smile and help the organisation extend international cleft surgery missions to Duitama, Colombia, in 1992*. After two successful missions that provided surgery to 200 patients, the cousins officially established the Operation Smile Colombia Foundation in 1994.

Dr. Mauricio Herrera, volunteer cleft surgeon and Operation Smile Colombia's medical director, left, performs surgery with the support of volunteer nurse Geraldin Ximena Rodriguez Tachak during the August 2019 local mission in Riohacha, Colombia. Photo: Rohanna Mertens.

Today, the foundation continues its pioneering work in providing Colombians affected by cleft conditions with access to safe surgery and multi-disciplinary support including psychosocial care, speech therapy, dentistry, paediatrics, otolaryngology (ear, nose and throat), genetics, nutrition and orthodontics. Patients and their families receive these services completely free of charge through two year-round care centres in Bogotá and Duitama and more than 28 local missions per year in many regions throughout the country, which often serve rural and remote communities.

Working into its 25th year as a domestic non-profit, Operation Smile Colombia has delivered more than 23,000 surgeries and over 250,000 patient consultations through its multi-disciplinary approach. The foundation’s commitment to treating the whole patient and supporting families through ongoing and comprehensive care has long served as a model of excellence for Operation Smile care centres and local missions around the world.

Volunteer dentist and orthodontist Dr. Nancy Rojas prepares to treat 7-year-old patient Juana at Operation Smile's care centre in Bogotá, Colombia. Photo: Jasmin Shah.

And the Vargas family remains woven into the fabric the organisation. Ernesto Vargas is the chairman of the foundation’s board of directors. Rodrigo Vargas Cabllero, Carlos Arturo’s son, established the foundation’s signature fundraising event “Por Una Sonrisa” as part of the annual Bogotá Half Marathon. Antonio’s son, Dr. Federico Vargas Mejía, grew up volunteering for Operation Smile Colombia and, today, is a volunteer cleft surgeon and board member. Esteban Vargas is a biomedical engineering volunteer-in-training and participates in the Por Una Sonrisa campaign. Carlos Arturo remains on the board in an honorary position.

Drawing on the resources of their company, Carlos Arturo and Antonio placed Operation Smile Colombia in a position of strength from the very beginning. At their headquarters in Duitama, the first international mission was hosted at a nearby hospital that was outfitted with state-of-the-art surgical equipment in accordance with the medical standards of Operation Smile and the approval of the Colombian Ministry of Health. By 1995, they had built a fully functional clinic on their company’s property that continues to deliver treatment as an Operation Smile care centre.

They also looked within their company to help launch the upstart initiative.

Operation Smile Colombia's executive director Martha Tristancho. Photo: Jasmin Shah.
Operation Smile Colombia's executive director Martha Tristancho. Photo: Jasmin Shah.

The husband of Operation Smile Colombia’s current executive director, Martha Tristancho, was an employee of the Vargas’ firm in 1992. A nurse by profession with experience working with the Ministry of Health, Martha was enlisted by Carlos Arturo and Antonio to volunteer her expertise to perform a census of patients living with untreated cleft lip and cleft palate in and around Duitama.

“In June, we began working in coordination with the government,” Martha said. “By August, we already had a census of more than 400 patients. By November, we hosted the first medical mission.”

Driven by a core group of Operation Smile Colombia’s current staff and volunteers who have been committed to its patients since these formative years, the foundation coalesced and opened the doors of its second care centre in Bogotá in 2002.

Operation Smile Colombia's care centre in Bogotá, Colombia. Photo: Rohanna Mertens.

“It was gratifying to see that patients didn’t just come in, receive surgery, then leave and that’s it,” said Stella Velandia, Operation Smile Colombia’s longtime head of pharmacy, who’s been on the foundation’s staff for the past 21 years and served as a volunteer since its founding. “After that, we follow up with their therapies … I’m proud to be able to participate in that.”

Stella began volunteering as an operating room nurse for Dr. Gilberto Mariño, who was a renowned Colombian craniofacial specialist, professor and Operation Smile Colombia’s lead volunteer surgeon.

Though Gilberto passed away nearly 20 years ago after battling brain cancer, his memory is honoured daily at the care centre in Bogotá that bears his name.

Operation Smile Colombia's head of pharmacy Stella Velandia. Photo: Jasmin Shah.

“He was a special person. He was absolutely a leader in what he did, but he did it differently – he did it his way,” said Dr. Mauricio Herrera, a former student of Gilberto, long-time Operation Smile volunteer surgeon and Operation Smile Colombia’s current medical director. “He really pushed us to study: On a Monday he would say, ‘OK, this is the book; you have to read this topic.’ That Wednesday, he arrived at the hospital with another book, saying, ‘Give me back my book, now you have to read this topic by Friday,’ and then he’d bring another book. So, I had to read three books per week, and I have a lot of work at the hospital.

“But it was amazing. That was his kind of strategy to push us to learn and to read at that time. It wasn’t available on the internet or in facilities like it is today.”

Mauricio said that being called upon by Gilberto to volunteer on medical missions was a special privilege only bestowed on a chosen few – his very best and brightest students. He added that it was Gilberto’s vision that laid the foundation for Operation Smile Colombia to thrive.

Operation Smile Colombia volunteer cleft surgeon and medical director Dr. Mauricio Herrera. Photo: Jasmin Shah.

“What I really remember about him was his commitment to complete patient care,” Mauricio said. “I think it was the pillar to build all of this, because all of the people who were training with him at the time are the older volunteers here today.”

Operation Smile Colombia pioneered the care centre and local mission models of care delivery within the Operation Smile organisation, which at the time was still firmly rooted in conducting large-scale international missions comprised mostly of medical volunteers from outside of the countries in which it worked.

But under the leadership of Gilberto and the Vargas family, the foundation tapped into the unified ethos of its volunteers: Colombian patients and families affected by cleft conditions deserve the very best ongoing and comprehensive care that they can offer.

Operation Smile Colombia volunteer cleft surgeon and board member Dr. Federico Vargas Mejía. Photo: Jasmin Shah.

“That is the most important thing here,” Federico said. “Because you can be in the surgery for 45 minutes or an hour, but the treatment lasts for 20 or 25 years. What the surgeons do is maybe 5 percent of the whole treatment. If we are working together with the speech therapy, with psychology, with the phonoaudiology – every specialty together – we can have better success with the kids.”

Operation Smile Colombia volunteer phonoaudiologist Olga Sarmiento works with a young patient at the Operation Smile Colombia care centre in Bogotá, Colombia. Photo: Jasmin Shah.

Martha added: “It’s definitely the need, the lack of opportunity to access healthcare at that time among the people here in Colombia. And I think what moves us is the desire to always do more, the desire to completely address the need.

“In fact, I think that is what keeps us going in this moment, because we have grown, step by step.”

Operation Smile Colombia volunteer psychologist Nubia Bercerra works with a young patient at the Operation Smile Colombia care centre in Bogotá, Colombia. Photo: Jasmin Shah.

*Editor’s note: Independent from the efforts of the Vargas family and Operation Smile Colombia, Operation Smile conducted an international medical mission in Colombia in 1988, the first in the country.