Operation Smile, an international medical charity organization, held a graduation gala on Saturday, August 26 marking the graduation of Rwanda's newest plastic surgeons: Dr. Yves Nezerwa, Dr. Francoise Mukagaju, and Dr. Ian Shyaka. These emerging medical professionals were trained under the College of Surgeons of East, Central and Southern Africa (COSECSA) framework. The trainees gained skills from various trainers mainly both Locally, and at international training facilities. Their Training was led by Prof Faustin Ntirenganya and Dr. Charles Furaha. ALSO READ: Understanding the role of plastic surgery in Rwanda The graduation gala gathered various prominent figures from the medical field, among the attendees were Dr. Menelas Nkeshimana, Head of Department of Health Workforce Development at the Ministry of Health; Kathleen S. Magee, co-founder and President of Operation Smile; Dr. Didas Kayihura Muganga, University of Rwanda Vice Chancellor; Prof. Faustin Ntirenganya, an Onco-Plastic and Breast surgeon and Head of Department of surgery at UR; Dr. Augustino Hellar, Operation Smile Regional Director; Andrew Karima, Operation Smile Country Manager in Rwanda, and more. The gala provided a platform to delve into Rwanda's plastic surgery history, tracing back to 2011 when the nation lacked plastic surgeons. Fast-forwarding to 2023, the collaboration between Operation Smile and other partners has yielded three more plastic surgeons. As of 2023 Rwanda has a total of five plastic and reconstructive surgeons. The event also candidly discussed present challenges, particularly those related to human Resource. Attendees discussed actionable strategies to overcome these challenges and formulated a forward-looking vision that outlines the trajectory of plastic surgery in Rwanda for the next five years aligning to the NSOAP targets. In an exclusive interview with The New Times, Kathleen S. Magee, Co-Founder, President and CEO of Operation Smile Inc, shared insights about the organization’s journey in Rwanda and its future aspirations. The excerpts: Before you came to Rwanda, tell us how Operation Smile chose Rwanda for its efforts. Our journey with Rwanda began in 2009 when we recognized the critical need for surgeons to care for children with conditions like Cleft Lip and Cleft Palate. We knew that the absence of surgeons would hinder proper care. When we learned that Rwanda had only one plastic surgeon and needed to establish training, we decided to explore how we could help. Our focus is always on understanding a country's unique needs and how we can make a positive impact. Our primary goal is to care for children, a mission we also pursue in the United States and in Rwanda particularly. After your arrival in Rwanda and treating children, your project evolved to not only address cleft palates but also involve training local plastic surgeons. Yes, we extended our focus to training local surgeons because we understood that sustainable impact required local expertise. Dr. Steve Naum from Michigan joined us and committed to support in training of local surgeons. At the time, there were two plastic surgeons, so we supported in training of general surgeons in plastic surgery techniques. This initiative led to significant progress. Since 2009, we've conducted over 1,900 surgeries through training and direct interventions. We believe in enhancing access of surgical care to reach those in need and dedicated to improving children's lives. How are you working towards training more plastic surgeons in Rwanda? During an incident I shared today, when we started, a family came to us for screening, and upon assessing their situation, we noticed the mother had walked barefoot for miles. This experience reinforced the need to extend our services to rural areas, eliminating the need for extensive travel. These children face significant challenges – from malnutrition to lack of education and social isolation. Parents endeavor to take care of their children to have better lives. They travel great distances to access our free surgeries, and we provide comprehensive care during their stay and follow-up, addressing speech, dental, and psychosocial needs. These children are often stigmatized and excluded in schools, which we aim to change. Our focus is on training more surgeons, with a five-year plan to train 20 and more plastic surgeons, a process that takes time for quality outcomes. This commitment could potentially result in 50,000 surgeries over the next five years, emphasizing our efforts in district hospitals and local accessibility, reducing the need for travel to Kigali to seek surgical care. What significance does today's event hold? Today's event marked a significant milestone for us, as it's our first presence here. The visit of OSI to Rwanda in 2022 provided feedback which revealed critical need to upgrade infrastructure, lack of enough functioning equipment, and the need for enhanced training. This prompted us to take action, recognizing the necessity to reach communities directly, we formulated a comprehensive five-year plan. This strategic blueprint aims to impact lives of thousands of children and Rwandans in the upcoming years, addressing pressing healthcare needs and fostering lasting change. Could you elaborate on your expectations for the newly graduated surgeons? We're excited about the three new surgeons: Dr. Francoise Mukagaju, Dr. Yves Nezerwa, and Dr. Ian Shyaka. It's particularly noteworthy that Dr. Mukagaju is a female surgeon, contributing to our focus on empowering women in medicine. We urge these surgeons to embrace mentorship and education while providing care. Our hope is to train more surgeons, enhance children's lives, and contribute to Rwanda's future. Could you share any final thoughts or insights? Certainly, I want to underscore the essential role of funding in our efforts. Collaborations with entities like Stryker, Johnson & Johnson, and our connections with partners such as the Sweden, Canada, and Italy have been pivotal in raising funds to support training initiatives and bolster infrastructure. Securing funding remains a vital facet of our future endeavors. We're actively engaging with the Government of Rwanda through the Ministry of Health to ensure sustainable support, fostering a brighter future for this country. I'd also like to acknowledge the involvement of the Government, particularly in capacity building and healthcare accessibility. President Kagame's commitment to healthcare resonates deeply with us. Our partnership's core message to Rwanda is that we're here to stand by the children's welfare, constructing a solid foundation for their future. Our alignment with Rwanda's dedicated pursuit of Sustainable Development Goals is unwavering. We recognize that surgery is integral to goals related to health and well-being. It's heartening to be acknowledged as one of the few organisations capable of realising these aspirations. We're fortunate to have steadfast partners, and during the recent World Health Assembly in Switzerland, we witnessed three monumental shifts in focus – recognition of surgery's importance, the need for enhanced nutritional interventions, and the critical role of oxygen in healthcare. About Operation Smile Operation Smile, is an international medical charity with a presence in more than 60 countries, whose global network of thousands of credentialed medical volunteers from over 80 countries is dedicated to helping improve the health and lives of children. Since its founding in 1982, Operation Smile has provided more than 220,000 free surgical procedures for children and young adults born with cleft lip, cleft palate and other facial deformities. To build long-term sufficiency in resource-poor environments, they train doctors and local medical professionals in partner countries so that they are empowered to treat their local communities. Operation Smile also donates medical equipment and supplies and provides year-round medical treatment through its worldwide centers.