Wednesday, 19 June 2024

Mother’s Smile’s Dr. Han: “Every child should be treated to live a normal life”8

5 min read

By Han Kai

Dr. Han Kai, founder of Mother’s Smile philanthropic project affiliated with the China Women's Development Foundation, narrates the journey of the medical and philanthropic programme that has given free treatment to over 40,000 poor children with cleft lip and palate through reconstructive surgery. More than 10,000 medical and non-medical volunteers have joined countless missions across China and in other countries over the last 30 years

  • More than 40,000 children have benefited from the project in 30 years 
  • The first medical facility in Hangzhou, Operation Smile Charity Hospital, was built in 2007
  • Chinese physicians, non-medical volunteers and the youth have joined medical missions in Cambodia, Philippines, Africa, and Kenya
  • The project relies on donations and government support to sustain its medical mission


Many people outside China are not familiar with the philanthropic activities that originated in the country. Mother's Smile, a children’s charity organisation led by Chinese surgeon Dr. Han Kai, carried out more than 203 medical activities such as free surgery and related operations for children in poverty-stricken areas in China. The organisation will mark its 30th anniversary this year. Han and his associate Shao Jinzhi, also known as Paul, believe their mission can be summarised such that “no one is left behind”. Han received the Leadership in Philanthropic Achievement Award at The Asian Banker Global Wealth and Society Awards Programme held in Shanghai, China in December. Mother’s Smile was named Philanthropic Project of the Year in China. Below is the edited transcript of the journey of Mother’s Smile as told by its founder, Han Kai, and his associate, Shao Jinzhi.

Dr. Han Kai (HK): First of all, as a surgeon I have been educated and trained to conduct operations of children with cleft lip and palate in remote areas. And as a human being, you can do so many things in your life. There's one thing I feel like I can do and I should do. I have the responsibility to help other people, patient or otherwise. The second thing that gives me encouragement is people like Paul. He started getting interested in the medical mission and began asking me about it. I told him that I’ve done this for over 20 years. I told him stories about our medical missions. He seemed sceptical at first. You can imagine my surprise when he said he wanted to join us. I remember him asking if we have an upcoming mission. And I said we have a mission in November. Shao (Paul) said, “You don't have to buy a plane ticket”. “Let me organise our club,” he added. We drove to the mission site and brought our medical volunteers and all the equipment. He provided us with 15 vehicles. We started from Hangzhou and travelled to Guizhou. The name of the place is Qiannan. The round trip is almost 3000 miles. That episode became a way for us to know Paul and his group better and they, in turn, started to understand why we do what we do. They have been with us since that day. They come every trip to help us. Not only do they use social media to share amazing stories about the mission, but they have taken our philanthropic activities to a new level altogether. That is something we really appreciate.

Shao Jinzhi (SJ): Han and his associates are a professional medical team composed of doctors and nurses. I met them during a difficult time when their organisation was going through a transformation. To do charity and philanthropy, you need people and connections. You also need publication and money. I am a professional. I am an entrepreneur. I know I can help them organise the charity and so I did.  Soon, medical workers and others came to volunteer their services. They came from various professions and diverse industry backgrounds. We were overwhelmed to see people devote their love, money and time to the project. I didn’t take long that many people from different places came to know more about our mission and gave their support.

HK: My parents were professors who taught in an American university. They were a huge influence on me. They were the reason why I got interested in western medicine in the first place. Parents always want their kids to be healthy, happy and useful to society. I have a very deep impression of what my father told me. He said, “Every day our working time is eight hours. If eight hours pass without you working, time still passes”. He was trying to teach me the value of time and to spend it as efficiently as possible. He told me that in a very casual way but I still remember it to this day. That had a great impact on me indeed. Also, as Chinese you try to be a good person. You must try to help those who are in need so that when the time comes you need assistance; others will come to your aid.

It all began in Norfolk, Virginia where I met a professor named William Magee, a plastic surgeon. In 1982, Doctor Magee founded Operation Smile (a volunteer-based non-profit organisation that offers free surgery to people born with cleft lip and palate). He gave a lecture and told us what it is all about. They held a mission in the Philippines in 1982. So I looked at the slides and listened intently as he discussed the mission and then I felt good inside. As a plastic surgeon, I also occasionally meet patients who are suffering with cleft lip and palate. As I am from China, I asked Magee if he has taken his medical programme to China. And he said he has not.

China was very different back in 1985 to 1995. At the time the country was just starting to open. Everybody was very excited to build a better society and a better country. Everyone was working hard. I was one of them. I started working after graduating in 1982. I studied to be a doctor. I had my classical training at the Shanghai the Ninth People's Hospital. The late professor Zhang was my superior. He is one of the pioneers of plastic surgery in the country. He gave me a lot of encouragement. He introduced me to his friends who were working in the United States. He sent me as a fellow to work over there. I arrived in March 1989. My boss, Julia Terzis, specialised in peripheral nerve or reconstructive surgeries and she is well-known for this. So I stayed there to train. That is where I got oriented on cleft lip reconstructive programmes - the volunteer-based charity programme founded by Magee.

I wanted to bring this programme to China. So I started a couple of missions in China. I brought the mission to my own hospital in Hangzhou. The patients and their families came to take advantage of the programme. This was early 1990s. China was very different back then. China has just started to develop. I remember an elderly couple were among the people who came and asked me if could add them to the list. I had to turn them down because we already had a full schedule. The old man said he understood that he cannot get a surgery that time. “So are you coming back next year,” he asked gently. I stumbled how to reply. I thought to myself I was just one of the volunteers. I try to bring the mission to the countryside which is a challenge considering it is very hard to convince people and get resources and funding. I did not want to break his heart so I just said I will do my best to return.

It was not planned. So I had no clue. I don't know if we can come back the following year. But deep inside, I really wanted to come back. As a physician, I saw many patients become desperate because they are not able to get the treatment they need. Well, I totally understand that. How are they supposed to feel? So I told myself that I would do whatever I can to help. I don't want anyone left behind. It is becoming difficult with my limited resources but we went back to help people over there. People kept asking if we can go back again. That was how we started. Once a year we were able to bring the non-medical volunteer team and the Chinese medical team together. Since then we have been doing it consistently for 30 years now.

We get volunteers all over China while others are from overseas. There are volunteers who come from the United States, United Kingdom and many other foreign countries. The term volunteerism is relatively new for many. We talk to a lot of doctors and nurses and other hospital workers to invite them to join us and, thankfully, a few will show up to volunteer their services in our next mission.

We get all kinds of support in communities. We also have some groups of people from Hong Kong that give us donations. Hong Kong is much more wealthy than the mainland. They formed a foundation to raise money for the treatment of children from poor communities.  I help coordinate every medical mission and we partner with local hospitals. The government’s involvement and support are very important. First of all, we have to coordinate with local government because local officials will endorse our team to government hospitals. By collaborating with local government agencies such as the Women's Federation and the Healthcare Commission, we are able to collect patients’ information. They help us bring our programme to communities and set up a facility to accommodate our missions. The team then conducts a centralised physical examination and screening of sick children from poor families who have registered in advance. We would afterward carry out free surgical treatment. The organisation also provides training for the treatment of cleft lip and palate to doctors in the partner hospital who are capable of performing operations.

The first mission was a joint effort. The one thing I'd like to see is the government support, the local hospital support plus the volunteers from everywhere to come together and make something happen. For the patient and their family, it's very important for them to get treatment. I think it's a very positive way to contribute something good to society.

From 1990 to 1997, our missions were funded by people and organisations outside China. Most of our resources including volunteers and medical supplies came from overseas. A charitable organisation based in Hong Kong even set up a foundation to raise money to help us. We also received funding and volunteers within China. Funding came from the local hospitals and local governments. They gave us free equipment and venues for the missions. They also provided free medical supplies if we don’t have enough. We did not have official NGO programmes in the country until 1997. We set up the office in the country and we are affiliated with the China Women's Development Foundation. That was when we became an official non-governmental organisation (NGO). Then we started recruiting medical and non-medical volunteers abroad and this went on for several years. More than 90% of the volunteers were doctors and nurses. We recruited from within the country as well until the number of local volunteers grew bigger. Then we managed to launch a couple of missions per year.

We provided free surgery and related operations which at the time probably costs around RMB 5000 ($773). In 2007 we were able to set up the first medical facility in Hangzhou called Operation Smile Charity Hospital – a milestone for the organisation. That was the first time we set up an NGO so we can receive the funding.

We went overseas to offer free medical assistance and treatment for families in poor areas. We went to Cambodia and the Philippines. We went to Africa and Kenya. Thousands of medical and non-medical personnel such as plastic surgeons, anaesthesiologists, nurses, paediatricians, orthopaedic dentists, voice trainers, and medical staff from partner hospitals formed a voluntary medical team.

We have invited thousands of volunteers over the years. More than 2000 anaesthesiologists have joined the medical missions. We have more than 10,000 non-medical volunteers such as surgeons, entrepreneurs, leaders, workers, teachers, and even students. Our volunteer pilot is a commercial airline pilot from Shanghai. They take part in our mission at least once a year. I mean, this is very good for the community. A positive force indeed.

SJ: After three decades of doing this, we have found out how many families in China suffer from the cleft lip and palate and how many children are left untreated. Our goal is to do surgery for those remaining cases as soon as possible. 

HK: I agree with Paul. We want no one left behind. We want every single baby born with the defect to get treatment on time. It is easier for families to get treatment in Shanghai, Beijing, and Hangzhou because these are big cities. But in rural areas where quality of life is poor, families lack access to professional medical services. China is so big and very different.

It is very important to become a caring society. As Chinese, people are very civilised. There are many stories of government helping us. They are very supportive. We received numerous recognitions from the government over the years. I am not solely responsible for our success. Volunteers like Paul and many others are equally deserving of the recognition because they are an integral part of the organisation. There are a lot of medical volunteers from Shanghai. A lot of them just come once a year. Some have joined our mission multiple times already. China is a caring society. We just need more publicity to let people know more about our medical missions. And this is where Paul’s expertise has given us a big advantage. Right now after 10 years we have more people joining us especially the young ones. Today we can see the young doctors, students even very small kids. They donated their red packet. China is becoming more prosperous and it's not only about money. I think helping the poor and needy is rooted in our culture and in the human spirit. This is a very important thing that keeps me going – to see the young people join us. We don't have enough money. But I believe we will have enough funding one day.

There are many children who need surgery. The incidence is the same in poor or rich countries. I just hope that every child who has the problem would get the treatment on time. This is a very treatable problem. If the child is not treated on time, it may lead to psychological problems in the future. But if they are treated, they can live as normal persons in society. We need everybody’s support to try to solve the problem.

SJ: We hope to push the programme to the national level in the near future. We are optimistic the government will continue to support us because it is beyond us as an organisation. It needs the nation to allocate resources to do it.

HK: A person's ability is very limited. For 30 years, it has been of the whole team and everyone’s effort. The topic is very accurate - Wealth and Society. What is money and wealth? Money and wealth can be used in the entire society. It can be used for everyone and it is of greatest value. I would like to thank the children and their families who have been treated by our team in the past 30 years. Thank you all for your kindness and love. Thank you to Mr. Lu whose foundation has been supporting us since 2017. I hope that everyone can help these children in poor areas and get them out of the dilemma of life in the future. The result of this treatment is very important to every child and their family. It may be a very important step in changing their lives. However, in this process, such as the Wealth and Society programme held by The Asian Banker, this endeavour can start here among ourselves. Share our message to everyone. It is a good and positive force for our entire society and as human beings to help one another. Thank you.

Click "Wealth and Society 2020" to view proceedings and other speeches at the event

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