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Why I Joined and Never Left!

Dr. Sanjeev smiling with Smile Train staff and partners

As a freshly qualified plastic surgeon in (2002), I was just doing my Job! Making aesthetic corrections and performing emergency surgeries on people in trauma was paying me enough to lead a comfortable life. In early years, I also did a few cleft surgeries, but the world in which cleft-affected people live and their struggle for survival was unknown to me until I got associated with Smile Train. This one alliance has changed so much in me as a surgeon!

My father always wanted me to become a doctor, even when I was studying in school, and being an Asian child, I felt compelled to act upon my father’s wishes. After completing my Masters in General Surgery from S.M. Medical college, Agra, I shifted to Delhi and joined N. Batra Hospital. During my work tenure at the hospital, I developed an interest in plastic surgery and earned a surgical degree from Safdarjung Hospital while pursuing my vocation. For family reasons my stay in Delhi was short lived and I shifted to Varanasi to settle down and started practicing as a surgeon.

Dr. Sanjeev in his office

Now when I trace my life backwards, there was a pivotal point in my life, when, I got in touch with Mr Satish Kalra from Smile Train, whose magnetic personality and visionary approach was something unignorable. I got introduced to Smile Train’s work, and that gave me a sense of purpose, a direction to serve the underserved and instilled a set of values to make my life as a surgeon truly meaningful. I started reading about clefts and how this disrupt the normal lifestyle of a cleft-affected individual. That eventually cemented my relationship with the organisation and in 2006, I officially joined Smile Train as a partner surgeon at Heritage Hospital, Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh.

Dr. Sanjeev smiling with Smile Train partners

I remember, at that time, there were only two Smile Train partner hospitals in Varanasi. Apart from our daily routine of running the Outpatient Department (OPD) and conducting surgeries, we were also doing outreach programs. Statistically, we knew that Varanasi had a huge number of untreated clefts, but people from far-flung areas were not reaching out to us. So, we had to do it the other way. I used to travel to far-off places on weekends to set up awareness camps and distribute pamphlets to address the concerns of the cleft-affected families and convince them to come to the hospital for treatment. With Smile Train India team’s continuous guidance and our efforts, we started gaining the trust of the community and people started reaching out to us for medical support. Within a few months, I had so much transformed as a surgeon and as a human, that I didn’t realise in the first year itself I created smiles for 750 beneficiaries. There was a time in my career when I had suffered a severe leg injury and was unable to deliver at pace. I had sleepless nights thinking about my patients! However, nothing could keep me away from cleft surgery and I was back in the OT within a week, in spite of a fractured leg! All thanks to Smile Train, for teaching me to put service before self.

Dr. Sanjeev smiling with a Smile Train patient

Over the years, I have also seen Smile Train evolving as a world class cleft charity. They did not limit their support to cleft treatment but expanded their horizon to build capacity of local surgeons through research, innovation, and use of technology. I got multiple opportunities to meet other partners, interact with international medical experts, exchange our learnings, understand my potentials as a surgeon and hone my skills. Those ‘Aha’ moments in the operation theatre after seeing my cleft surgery results today, are all due to the trainings imparted by Smile Train.

Dr. Sanjeev speaking at an HMS conference
Dr. Sanjeev with a cleft patient and their family

When I reflect on my 17 years of career with Smile Train, I can only see many wonderful smile stories that continuously inspire me to seek excellence in what I do.16,000 surgeries performed by me are 16,000 stories of hope and happiness – what else, as a medical professional, I can expect from my life! I am deeply grateful to Smile Train for choosing me as a partner surgeon and would continue to serve the cleft community till I can...

Dr. Sanjeev joining Smile Train India's Smile Walk fundraiser