A plastic surgeon and a craniofacial surgeon from Rambam Health Care Campus in Haifa recently spent eight days in Africa repairing facial deformities in babies, children and young adults.

Dr. Omri Emodi and Dr. Zach Sharoni were part of a multi-national group that performed 155 free surgeries in just over a week in Ghana sponsored by Operation Smile – a US-based humanitarian organization with volunteer surgeons and medical staff from 12 countries.

Facial deformities are not just about appearance. “It can affect eating, drinking, speaking and, of course, his or her own self-image,” Emodi explained. In Africa especially, “you walk with a ‘sign’ on you … you could easily be an outcast.”

The team treated patients who came from as far as 500 miles away, working non-stop in seven makeshift surgery rooms in Ho, the capital city of Ghana. Most of the operations were on cleft lips and palates.

The experience is also good for the doctors, said Emodi.

Dr. Omri Emodi with a young Operation Smile patient in Ghana. Photo courtesy of Rambam Health Care Campus

“You work with a team that you do not know and who come from another culture. But once you get into the rhythm, everyone becomes one team, motivated by the desire to help these people,” said Emodi, noting that there are only 20 qualified Ghanaian surgeons who can perform these operations, in a population of 20 million.

Surgeries generally take less than an hour, but “can change the life of a child. The mission is like a gift from God,” said the 46-year-old deputy director of Rambam’s department of oral and maxillofacial surgery.

Emodi and other Rambam staff physicians previously have taken part in similar missions to Vietnam, Ethiopia, the Philippines and other countries. Closer to home, Rambam also takes care of patients from Palestinian Authority territories and war-torn Syria.

“I feel privileged to be able to make a difference in children’s lives,” he said — with a smile.