For many, raising five children would be not only a full-time job, it would be all encompassing; however, Kathy Magee is not like most people. Instead, while Kathy and her husband Bill raised their flock, she worked as a nurse and studied at night, ultimately earning two master’s degrees—one in education, the other in social work. And she was only just getting started.
Born in 1945 in New Jersey, Kathy dreamed throughout high school and college of helping children around the world. It was not until she was in her 40s, however, that she realized that dream. Kathy and her husband were invited on a medical mission to the Philippines—Bill as a pediatric surgeon and Kathy as a nurse. On that trip, Kathy says, “We saw children in need and if we didn’t think of how to address the needs of the children that stood in front of us, no one else might think about changing their lives.” After this experience, she says, “the focus of our lives changed and we knew we could make a bigger impact.”
Upon returning to the U.S., Kathy and Bill founded Operation Smile—a nonprofit dedicated to providing free surgeries to children with cleft lips, cleft palates, and other facial deformities. Today, Operation Smile is 30 years old, works in more than 60 countries, has surgically treated over 220,000 young people, and has provided comprehensive medical evaluations to 3.8 million more.
Kathy, who volunteers as Operation Smile’s president, says she is sustained in this work because “when you give selflessly, you’ll always feel like you get more in return.” To illustrate her point, she describes a particularly memorable experience from 1988: “Our medical volunteers were among the first civilians invited into Vietnam after the war, having been asked by a General to help. He told us, ‘Don’t think of anything else but taking care of their children.’”
“At Olof Palme Hospital in Hanoi I came across a mother with a seven-day-old with a cleft lip and palate. The child was extremely weak. The mother and I could not speak the same language, but she ushered me over to the side of the bed, and I realized her baby would not live another week or two without our intervention. The doctors did not want to operate on the child because of its weakness, but one dentist suggested he could make an obtorator—an appliance to be fitted to the roof of the mouth so the baby had the ability to suck.” That child was the last to receive the attention of the medical team on that mission. One year later, when Operation Smile returned to Hanoi, that same baby was healthy enough to undergo surgery. “To give a new life to this child and mother was all that our team would want,” Kathy says.
Though Operation Smile is now an award-winning nonprofit known around the world, Kathy explains that the organization continues to face challenges. One constant frustration, she says, is not having enough caregivers to treat the millions of children with cleft issues waiting for surgeries. “There are so many more children we still need to help,” Kathy says.
“The most difficult thing for me is turning away a child who could have a new life or future.” To address this issue, Operation Smile is now working to train medical personnel in-country to perform surgeries, administer anesthesia, and provide many of the services previously provided only by international volunteers.
The indefatigable Kathy now travels the world as an ambassador of Operation Smile, bringing the organization where it is needed most. “I appreciate the gift that our family has been given, for without the hands-on touching of lives we change, my family would have a much different perspective on this world and what we do each day,” she says. “We know from experience now that the gifts and talents we have, and what we share with others, will certainly bring us a world of peace.”