Ear to Ear Grin
Retired Navy nurse is helping to change lives, one smile at a time
by Carol Cujec
photo by Luis Garcia

Smiles transcend all barriers of language and culture. Cmdr. Shirlee Hicks ’66 (BSN), a Navy nurse for 27 years, is devoting her retirement to restoring smiles to children worldwide born with facial deformities.

Back in 1999, Hicks gathered a group of 10 professionals near her home in Shell Knob, Mo., including a plastic surgeon, a speech pathologist, a psychologist and a dentist. They created a mission statement and named themselves The Smile Foundation. So far the group has restored smiles to 14 children from Brazil, Honduras, Haiti and the United States, many of whom required numerous corrective procedures. Since children born with facial deformities often must be tube-fed and cannot speak, these surgeries are nothing short of life-saving.

The organization flies most of its patients to the United States for surgery. But in 2002, members of the medical team traveled to the upper Amazon River basin in Brazil to perform surgery on 10 children. During the visit, their plastic surgeon also trained a young Brazilian doctor to perform surgery on cleft lips and palates. Through donations, the organization was able to send the medical equipment needed to continue this essential work.

Hicks is still emotional when she recalls the first little boy they treated, 4-year-old Philippe from Brazil, who suffered from a bilateral cleft lip and severe cleft palate. His mother had kept him alive by feeding him with an eyedropper. She traveled 200 miles to bring her son to missionaries, who contacted The Smile Foundation. “We brought Philippe to the United States three times to repair his lip and palate and for some reconstructive surgery,” she explains. “Of course we taught him how to speak — because he had never spoken before. He was such a wonderful child. He smiled before he could speak.”

Asked whether her time at USD inspired her to do good works, Hicks wells up with gratitude. Now recognizing that she suffered from undiagnosed dyslexia years ago, she remains ever thankful for the school that nurtured her and allowed her to learn at her own pace. “They gave me the tools to do the things I believe very strongly about,” she says. “That’s more important than inspiration.”

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