William “Bill” P. Magee, Jr. describes his dyslexia as both his greatest challenge and his greatest strength; in learning to overcome his difficulties reading, he also learned the perseverance, study skills, and determination that would enable him to become a world-class plastic and craniofacial surgeon, and to launch and lead with his wife what would become the largest volunteer-based medical charity providing free cleft surgeries in the world.
Born in New Jersey in 1944, Bill was the second of 12 siblings in a close-knit family. His mother’s dedication to family was matched by his father’s generosity to the community. “My father, a physician and surgeon, cared for anyone who came to see him, and instilled in me a natural commitment to community and a desire to follow in his footsteps,” Bill says.
After graduating from dental school, Bill worked his way through medical school at George Washington University while raising five children with his wife, Kathy (also a 2014 Unsung Hero). He then completed an externship at the Maxillofacial Clinic in Switzerland, residencies in general surgery and plastic surgery in Virginia, and a Fulbright Scholar fellowship in plastic surgery and craniofacial surgery in Paris. “Throughout my education and throughout my life, the values my father instilledinmeserveasamodelforallthatIdo,” he says. “In fact, in the first professional practice I joined after completing my medical studies, 25 percent of our services were provided to patients free of charge. It was expected that each of us give of our time and expertise to free clinics.”
The no-cost care he provided to patients in the U.S. was very important to Bill, but it was a medical mission to the Philippines in 1982 with Kathy at his side that truly changed his life. Of this trip he says, “I distinctly remember the face of a mother with an eight-year-old who had a significant cleft.” Because of the overwhelming numbers of people who showed up asking for help, she had to be turned away. Bill and Kathy returned home to Virginia from that trip and founded Operation Smile, in order, he says, “to go back for that mother and the millions like her in the world in need of our help.”
Since then, Operation Smile has led medical missions across the globe, bringing life-changing surgical procedures to 220,000 children with facial deformities, especially cleft lips and cleft palates, and providing medical services to millions more. Though profoundly grate- ful to have saved so many lives, Bill warns, “You can never become too satisfied with the accomplishments you have achieved.” With that in mind, Operation Smile is now working to develop a Safe Surgery Platform that will be functional worldwide so that medical professionals around the globe will be able to safely perform surgeries.
The need for this care is explained on Operation Smile’s website: “Every three min- utes a child is born with a cleft. One in 10 of those children will die before their first birth- day. The children who survive are often unable to eat, speak, socialize or smile. In some places, they are shunned and rejected. And in most cases, their parents can’t afford to give them the surgeries they need to live a productive life.”
Changing and saving lives is just one of the rewards Bill receives in exchange for continuing to lead Operation Smile as the organization’s CEO. Another is the joy of being part of an international community of caretakers and volunteers that he has helped to build. He explains, “Children are the only language that we all have in common, and medicine is a powerful vehicle. The combination of both has the ability to unite people and forge friendship through the service to others. For example, you and I may not have anything in common, but if we work together to help someone else, we will find a common bond and walk away as friends.”