Austin Smiles Gives Fresh Faces and Warm Hearts

By Robert Clement, M.D. – December 3, 2012

In this season of giving and receiving, I would like to share my greatest treasure of receiving. In 1987, six local plastic surgeons met and formed a cleft lip and cleft palate team, which ultimately became the Austin Smiles Organization. We started with a local cleft lip and palate clinic and operated on children, regardless of the patients’ ability to pay, in the ten-county area covered by Brackenridge Hospital. Initially, we funded the program by using the stipend Brackenridge paid us to cover their emergency room but the work soon outgrew that resource.

After the first year, our team was invited to Mexico, El Salvador, and seven other countries in South America and in the Philippines. We currently send three teams a year (primarily to South American countries) where we do between 40 and 80 surgeries a week. Trips are funded through donations and local fundraising, and the doctors pay their own way donating their time and paying for the nurses or techs who assist in the operations.

It is an amazing feeling to be able to change a life with a one-hour operation. When we initially went to South America and Mexico, older family members who thought that the babies were either cursed or marked by the devil encouraged the parents to let the babies die. Fortunately, this thinking is fading, largely due, I think, to the fact that they see the children who have been repaired.

After the operation when we take the babies back to their parents, they, at times, do not recognize their children as there has been such a dramatic change in the configuration of the lip. As soon as the parents do recognize their child, there are always tears of joy at the transformation. The love and appreciation we receive is overwhelming. As one of my non-medical friends on a mission said, he had never been in a place where there was such unconditional love.

Each operation is special, a blessing to us and to the child, but one of the most rewarding patients for me was a 56-year-old man with a cleft lip and palate. Due to his deformity, he had never left his small house other than to go to the field to work and then come home. He had courted a lady for five years; she told us that she realized that he was a very good man, so they lived together and had several children. She noted that he had never been to town, never been to a store, and never been to church so they could get married due to his embarrassment about his deformity. After his operation, we showed him his new smile and asked him what was the first thing that he was going to do. He said, "I am going to take my wife to the church and get married in front of God." The recovery room was flooded with tears of joy.

We have now been on 75 missions and operated on more than 3,700 children. The doctors, nurses, techs, and other volunteers have given donations in services and time that are equivalent to $14.7 million. We have logged more than 175,000 volunteer hours. This is a labor of love for all of us. The week I spend volunteering with Austin Smiles is my favorite week of the year because my heart fills with love and happiness and I feel that I have received much more than I am able to give.

While Austin Smiles is now recognized nationally, we do not have a huge multimillion dollar foundation behind us and we still depend on community support and the support of the volunteers to finance our trips. If you would like to donate, please visit the website at

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