Dr. Neda Kalantar helps children with cleft palate finding a new life
I have visited the office of Dr. Neda Kalantar at the Isaac Newton Square in Reston many times, and I have always been touched by the before and after photos of children for whom she has repaired cleft lips and cleft palates. Dr. Neda is in most of the photos, smiling, holding the children, and giving them not only a free medical service, but renewed hope for their lives.
Born in Chicago but raised in Virginia Beach, Dr. Neda, whose parents are originally from Iran, has been a pediatric dentist for 13 years. She first learned about Operation Smile, an organization that helps children with facial deformities, especially the cleft lip and cleft palate, when she was in high school.
Each year 220,000 children are born with cleft palate and/or cleft lip that prevent them from eating properly, speaking clearly, or even smiling.
In many countries, kids with cleft lip and cleft palate are shunned in their societies, as they’re considered a curse and parents are embarrassed about their children.
“It’s a stigma—a really bad stigma,” she has told me.
“I met someone when I was a senior in high school who came to my school and had this surgery done as a young adult, and he mentioned how in the Philippines, his childhood was very difficult because of it, and it really touched me,” she said. “I was one of those kids who got very inspired. So when I went to college, I went to the University of Virginia, and I got really involved in Operation Smile. I went with them to Nicaragua and Gaza to volunteer, and while I obviously wasn’t a dentist then or a doctor, but I was really able to help. I always tell people that they can always help, at any level. You don’t have to be a doctor to volunteer.”
During her college years, Dr. Neda and her friends decided not only to help children with cleft palates, but they also decided to promote dental health and care in underprivileged communities, where access to these services is often unavailable.
“Between about 1999 and 2001, Vietnam was looking for more dentists to start a program there in which we could help lots of kids who don’t have access to dental care,” she recalled. “I was very lucky to be able to help organize something for those early missions, and that’s how I’ve been able to continue now.”
Since then, Dr. Neda has been traveling to unprivileged communities in Asia and Latin America, bringing her talent, expertise, time, and passion to help Operation Smile and giving free dental services.
“So many of these kids have no access to medical or dental care. We go into the provinces and set up in a school,” she explained. “We bring all our dental equipment, a portable drill, we sit them in [regular] chairs, and we screen them. We generally try to work on permanent teeth to save them, and we do the fillings. Most of these kids will sit in the chairs with their mouths open, and they hold a tray to spit into because we don’t have suction, and it is, first of all, very difficult.”
This past mission to Vietnam, Dr. Neda and her team screened about 2,000 kids, and they were able to do some level of procedure on at least 1,500 of them. They gave them oral hygiene education, toothbrushes, and toothpaste. At the same time, a surgical mission was there where Dr. Neda was involved.
“A cleft palate or cleft lip surgery is a 45-minute procedure but is life-changing,” she explained. “In this country (USA), the surgery is done within the first 10 weeks of life, and you have to be ten pounds to qualify for cleft lip surgery, but in many of these other countries, it’s not available. In Vietnam right now, there are 10,000 kids on the waiting list to get cleft lip surgery,” she said.
Dr. Neda works alongside a plastic surgeon fixing the dental problems that children with cleft palate usually exhibit.
“Surgeons need to have a dentist because sometimes, some of the teeth are in the way and need to be extracted, which would be my role or the dentist’s role, so they would remove the tooth,” she explained. In older kids who are not suitable for surgery, she makes an obturator. An obturator is a non-invasive device that sits at the top of the mouth and closes the aperture in the cleft palate.
In the U.S., one in nine children are born with cleft palate. In Asia, it’s one in seven. Several factors like nutrition, environment, prenatal care, and parents with cleft palate are determinant in the percentage of children with cleft palate.
A single surgery for one child with cleft palate costs around $450. Operation Smiles hosts fundraisers all year long.
Dr. Neda is also involved with other organizations to bring oral health to remote communities.
She also does a fundraiser every year collecting gently used stuffed animals during February and March, as the missions are usually in April. In October, she holds a Halloween buy-back of candy.
“I hold little fundraisers all year so that my practice and I can support Operation Smile,” she said.
“Recently, there’s a lot of concern with some of the displaced children in Syria, the refugee kids who don’t have anything, and they’re living in refugee camps. It’s just not a very safe time to go,” she said. “As you probably know, it’s not safe, but it is the focus of many organizations now. Part of me feels like these kids really need it—dental, medical—they don’t have anything. It would be great to prepare kits of toothbrushes and toothpaste that we can send them as a way of supporting them while they’re in refugee camps. Is anybody doing that? I don’t know, but at the end of the day, there is so much that needs to be done for this and other issues. There are a lot of wonderful organizations out there, and it’s just nice to have some way to help. I love working, I love working here, I just love feeling like I’m a part of something. Hopefully all other doctors and dentists do too.”
Dr. Neda is aware of the oral health needs of our own community, especially in low-income families. She volunteers at a lot of events to bring free dentistry, free toothbrushes, and oral hygiene education to the community. She visits schools as well, and was recently at the YMCA in Reston.
“We have some schools that visit our office, like a field trip,” she said. “They come here, and it’s really cute. We show them the decoration with animals, and we brush with them to show proper technique. That’s a great way to be a part of the community. I wanted to do this because I think Reston is a great community and is very kind to my practice. I love Reston.”
“I know it sounds cliché, but Operation Smile really changed my life,” she added.