Operation Rainbow – creating smiles


In September last year a team of Western Australian surgeons, nurses and anaesthetists transformed the lives of 30 Filipino children with severe facial deformities.

The mission was run by charity organisation Operation Rainbow.

They operated for five days free of charge on patients with cleft lips and palates.

Since 1990, Operation Rainbow has planned and raised funds to visit the Philippines at least once a year.

One in 300 babies in the Philippines is born with a cleft defect, which ‘grossly deforms the face and leaves a gaping hole where the upper lip and roof of the mouth should be’.

Operation Rainbow President Wilma Dunne

Operation Rainbow President Wilma Dunne first travelled with the organisation 20 years ago as a surgical nurse.

She says the surgeries change the children’s lives.

“The younger they are, the more chance they have to live normally,” Ms Dunne says.

“Left untreated they develop chronic ear infections which deafen them and they can’t chew because their teeth don’t line up.

“They go to school and sit at the back of the class so nobody can see them, they might have a brilliant brain, but . . . it’s an absolute waste.

“It’s (the surgery) terribly painful for the children, but in four days they will be perfect.”

The trip was plastic surgeon Dr James Savundra’s 13th charity mission and second time away with Operation Rainbow.

“One of the reasons I do plastic surgery is to do this kind of work,” Dr Savundra says.

“It’s a very transportable speciality; we don’t need much equipment or instruments to do what we do.”

James Savundra in his Subiaco office

Although Dr Savundra describes the trip as tough, he says it’s extremely rewarding.

“There are tough times because you’re working very hard,” he says.

“But you’re working hard because you’re helping these people, providing them with the basic opportunity to be cured of their deformity.”

In 2004 Ms Dunne was presented with the Order of Australia for her humanitarian work with Operation Rainbow.

“It’s a good thing to do and realise just how lucky we are here,” she says.

“And it becomes absolutely addictive.

“When I come home I think I couldn’t bear to go on another mission and then I look through the photographs and think ‘I can’t bear not to’.”

Ms Dunne says Operation Rainbow often takes her out of her comfort zone with access to extreme poverty.

“Some children live on a rubbish tip, children live under cardboard,” she says.

“But you know, out of those houses and pieces of cardboard come the whitest of shirts and cleanest of children.”

Each trip costs roughly $40,000 and as a non-profit program Operation Rainbow relies on generosity from fundraising.

Elizabeth before (left) and after her operation.

Elizabeth before (left) and after her operation.

“You’re not going to be able to change the world,” Ms Dunne says.

“None of us can change the world.

“But you can change the life of one of these kids — absolutely.”

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