The Fellowship of Smiles!

Smile Train

“The true teachers are those who help us think for ourselves” – Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan

As we celebrate Teachers’ Day in India, we realize how this quote perfectly describes Smile Train's "teach a man to fish" model, which focuses on training and enabling medical partners to provide comprehensive cleft care within their own communities. Smile Train's Cleft Lip and Palate Surgery Fellowship for maxillofacial surgeons at our partner Bhagwan Mahaveer Jain Hospital (BMJH) in Bangalore is a perfect example of this model. This month, two Fellows who were mentored by Dr. Krishnamurthy Bonanthaya — Chairman of Smile Train's India Medical Advisory Council and Project Director at BMJH, will graduate and go forward to perform cleft surgeries in their communities.

Dr. Nikhil Govindan, one of Smile Train's Fellows at BMJH who is preparing for his exam in September 2020, had his first association with Smile Train as an observer at the Charles Pinto Center at Jubilee Mission Hospital, Thrissur, where he had the opportunity to learn about cleft treatment under the aegis of the late Dr. Hirji Adenwalla and his team. When the opportunity for the one-year Fellowship arose, he jumped at the chance to dive deep into this specialized field.

Smile Train Fellow Dr. Nikhil O. Govindan holds a patient after his cleft surgery at BMJH in Bangalore

The enthusiasm and gratitude in his voice became evident when he spoke at length about his experience as a Smile Train Fellow at BMJH. “Before this Fellowship, I only looked at cleft care from the perspective of a surgeon, but Dr. Krishnamurthy changed my way of thinking entirely. I learnt that comprehensive cleft care is a multidimensional spectrum that involves counseling, speech therapy, and orthodontics apart from corrective surgeries. This hands-on and structured Fellowship — which involved scientific and academic meetings, end-to-end patient care, observation, and performing surgeries under supervision — was a phenomenal experience full of learning and growth.”

Sharing her experience, Dr. Jazna Jalil, who has just completed her Fellowship under Dr. Krishnamurthy at BMJH, recounts her experience with the same fervor. As a practicing maxillofacial surgeon at a state-of-the-art hospital in Qatar, she always yearned to learn more about cleft surgery and management. So, when the opportunity presented itself for a Fellowship at BMJH, she moved back to Bangalore, leaving behind her cushy job and settled family life.

“How do I begin? I’m a changed person thanks to this Fellowship!” Dr. Jazna quipped, adding, “My patient demographic had flipped on its head. In Qatar, I dealt with well-to-do, wealthy, and educated patients who used to read up about their symptoms before coming in for a consultation, while here in India, the families of children born with clefts did not even know what this birth difference was called, let alone the fact that it was treatable. The families came from such vulnerable backgrounds that they could barely afford formula milk and diapers for their babies. This experience taught me that clefts need to be looked at from various perspectives — and understanding the social and financial barriers associated with accessing cleft care in India was just as important as learning how to operate on children with clefts.”

Smile Train Fellow Dr. Jazna Jalil holds a child after her cleft surgery at BMJH in Bangalore

“Dr. Krishnamurthy is the best mentor one could hope for — he is ethical, encourages questions, simplifies concepts to help one understand better, and is very diligent with his supervision of our performance. To me, he is like a father figure, and I know for a fact that all the Fellows training under him feel like we are a family. I believe that every individual needs a good foundation to reach their best potential, and by God’s grace, I got the best opportunity to learn through Smile Train's Fellowship. Now, the sky's my limit! I feel confident and ready for my upcoming exams,” added Dr. Nikhil.

“Smile Train’s Fellowship trains us to take a truly holistic approach towards comprehensive cleft care, and surgery was the least of what I learnt during my time as a Fellow. The biggest learning came to me when I observed how Dr. Krishnamurthy dealt with children born with clefts. He often spoke about them as ‘my children’ and not ‘my patients’ — and the bond that the children and their families shared with him, years after the surgeries, was a revelation in itself. His ‘children’ came back to visit him as adults leading healthy and productive lives, but he never made a fuss about this fact. He always carried this humility that he has somehow also managed to instill in those who train under him. It may sound a little cliché, but these kinds of things rub off on you, and it’s rather humbling when you realize that your aspirational figure has been your mentor all along! You don’t see such a thorough manner of teaching very often, and that’s why I consider myself to be fortunate at having received such an opportunity to learn,” Dr. Jazna concluded.

As narrated by Dr. Nikhil O. Govindan and Dr. Jazna Jalil — Smile Train Fellows at Bhagwan Mahaveer Jain Hospital, Bangalore.

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