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'Smiling today, seven surgeries later' | Former patient, doctor reunite at Operation Smile 40-year celebration

Cyclists are gearing up to celebrate 40 years of Operation Smile in Virginia Beach with a 40-mile bike ride, including the CEO and co-founder's youngest patients.

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. — At the age of 26, Shaun Warnecke of Chesapeake smiles and laughs a lot. 

"It feels incredible," said Warnecke with, of course, a smile on his face. "Yeah, [I'm] smiling today! Seven surgeries later."

The past 20 years for Warnecke haven't made it easy for him to smile, both physically and emotionally. 

He was born with a cleft lip and palate that made it difficult for him to eat. 

Growing up as a teenager, he says he struggled with being comfortable with the way he looked compared to the others around him. 

Credit: Jill and Steve Warnecke

Operation Smile CEO and Co-Founder, Dr. Bill Magee in his own practice, caught wind of Warnecke's story after he was born. Magee then took the first step in providing Warnecke with a cleft lip surgery when he was only three days old. 

This made Warnecke Dr. Magee's youngest patient to undergo a surgical operation.

A team of surgeons, dentists, and nurses all worked to help him through his surgeries: seven, to be exact.

"Luckily, I had an incredible team of doctors and family and friends that brought me along the way," Warnecke said.

RELATED: 'Operation Smile' encourages women to be superheroes through volunteer work

One of the surgeons who helped him through a lot of his care is plastic surgeon Dr. Richard Rosenblum. 

Rosenblum volunteered with Operation Smile as a medical student when his dad encouraged him to go on a mission trip. He said since then, he was hooked on the organization's efforts and decided to focus on plastic surgery to help children like the ones treated by Operation Smile.

He said he remembers seeing Warnecke at the Operation Smile headquarters and being overwhelmed by his happy personality. Now, 20 years later, Rosenblum says he considers himself a proud parent to his now-former patient.

"It's awesome to see a child you helped when they were a couple days old, two, three, four, five years old, seven or eight, and now look at him. He's an account executive at Dollar Tree," said Rosenblum. "He's a success in his own right, he's full of confidence. He's happy!"

Now the doctor and patient are teaming up once again to bike 40 miles to celebrate Operation Smiles' milestone of 40 years in the "Cycle for Smiles" event. 

In the celebratory event on October 30, the ride will begin at the Eastern Shore side of the bridge-tunnel. Due to the high traffic of the thoroughfare, CBBT police will bookend both sides of the peloton to slow traffic and divert it into another lane. 

The police will then stop traffic from both directions as the peloton traverses the two two-lane tunnels. Once the riders have crossed the bridge-tunnel, the ride will expand at several gathering points along the route, picking up more representatives, before ending at Operation Smile Global Headquarters in Virginia Beach.

Warnecke says he's ready to take on this challenge and smile every mile he goes.

"When I was a teenager, I had this itch to put my hand over my mouth, because I couldn't smile correctly. So, being able to smile loud and proud now is great."

Warnecke says while his lip and palate surgeries are complete after all these years, he still has to potentially undergo one more procedure. He says his condition closed 75% of one of his nostrils, making it difficult to breathe out of his nose easily.

He says he is currently in talks with his doctors to review if he needs a procedure done to help fix his nose, proving how long the journey this type of condition takes.

RELATED: MAKING A MARK: Virginia Beach teen uses voice for others with cleft conditions

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