Local lady heads to Cambodia

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, March 8, 2005

In 1981, Dr. Bill Magee helped reconstruct the smile of Melva Rae West’s daughter. For the past three years, West, Magee and the rest of Magee’s Operation Smile organization have been fixing the grins of hundreds of children around the world.

&uot;My little girl was about five, and she was outside,&uot; said West, &uot;when a horse kicked her, and we took her to the Children’s Hospital of the King’s Daughters.&uot;

That’s where she met Magee, who helped the little girl start on a seven-year journey of facial reconstruction. The next year, the plastic surgeon and his wife Kathleen, a nurse, headed to the Philippines to repair children’s cleft lips and palates. Surprised at the number of children whose faces had been ravaged by these birth defects, the cause of which is uncertain, the Magees launched the Smile program, which would eventually grow to thousands of volunteers working in 20 countries.

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In late 2001, one from Suffolk added herself. West signed up to keep medical records on missions for the organization. The next February, she took her first trip to the Philippines.

&uot;We got to play with the kids,&uot; she said, hoisting up a huge album of photographs and memorabilia from her trip. There’s photos of her with the children and some taken during surgery, as well as the nametag she wore while in the offices.

&uot;I did medical bracelets and stat reports for the children,&uot; she said. &uot;It was a life-changing experience. We had to put ourselves on their level, and it changed the way I thought and felt.&uot;

In the Third World, she saw hospital facilities with dirt floors and animals running rampant, where patients had to do their own laundry and could only get food from visitors.

&uot;When I hear the Pledge of Allegiance, I know that I’m in the best land in the world,&uot; said West. &uot;You see the tears rolls down the children’s faces (after their deformities are healed), and it’s hard not to cry. We do a lot of crying.&uot;

After two weeks on another continent, West came home. But the experience never left her mind.

&uot;When I first got back,&uot; she recalled, &uot;I had a hard time talking about it without crying. It was like I’d walked with the Lord and seen a miracle. To see a child go through a 45-minute surgery and come out better was amazing.&uot;

It was an experience that she couldn’t wait to repeat. Over the next few years, she made trips to Kenya, Cambodia and China. On Monday, she left for another trip to Cambodia. In the living room of her Turlington Road home, West rummaged through a pile of small stuffed toys, trying to fit them all into a single suitcase.

&uot;I get a lot of these from my grandchildren, and some from the Woman’s Club,&uot; said West, a six-year-member and past president of the Club, which shares funding for her trips and is a large supporter of Smile. &uot;Some of them come from church groups.&uot;

She’s the first Suffolk resident to take a Smile trip.

&uot;I think God put us here for a reason, and I think He gave us two hands for a reason,&uot; she says. &uot;One was to help ourselves, and the other is to help others. It makes you appreciate what you have so much. When we first rode into Kenya, there were these three guys standing by the gate, and I could count their ribs. You can’t see that and be the same person that you were before; it stays with you forever.&uot;

Sometimes, she wishes that she could stay there forever.

&uot;It was hard to leave Kenya,&uot; she said wistfully. &uot;The patients begged us to stay, tugging our sleeves, saying, ‘Please take me to America!’ They stared at us as our bus drove away. They know we’re in the land of plenty.

&uot;Everyone should visit a Third World country,&uot; she continued. &uot;There isn’t a television show that can open your eyes and heart like it. You just want to hug the children and they know you’re there to help them. It’s easy to love them, and easy for them to love you back.&uot;