They had developed a close bond over the past nine years, since Samarrai performed the first of eight surgeries that turned the cleft lip and palate that Paige had been born with into a beautiful smile. And now she wanted to help her plastic surgeon in his upcoming mission to put that smile on the faces of dozens more children with clefts. Paige climbed up on a chair and motioned the doctor to come close. Then she whispered the news in his ear, as if it were too important to share with anyone else. “$9,120,” she said, “so far.” Samarrai took a step back and laughed. Then he gave her a high-five and a hug. “That’s a record, Paige. You should be so proud of yourself,” he said. “Thank you so much.” No one had ever raised so much money for any of the dozen medical missions he had made during the past 25 years with Operation Smile, a nonprofit group that repairs clefts for children in developing countries. Paige broke into a big smile and snuck a peek over at her mom, who was beaming with pride. Suddenly, the Atkisons weren’t that tired anymore. Their daughter was 2weeksold when Lisa and Michael Atkison handed Samarrai their infant with the disfiguring cleft lip and said only one word – “please.” “When I looked into his eyes that day, I knew he cared about us,” Lisa recalled Wednesday. “That he would do everything in his power to help our baby, and he has. “That’s why we make this trip all the way to Woodland Hills when there are doctors closer to us Paige can see. She only wants to see Dr. Samarrai.” He helped her, and now it’s her turn to help him, Paige says. Ever since she became old enough to understand what he was doing with Operation Smile, she has wanted to do something to help him reach as many children as possible. She began by hosting two dances at St. John’s Lutheran School in Bakersfield, raising $600 – enough to cover two operations on the medical mission. It wasn’t enough. She wanted her doctor busy during his upcoming three-week mission to Egypt. The Atkisons plastered brochures around their neighborhood, then most of Bakersfield, about Smile Missions, the organization Paige created to raise money for Operation Smile. Soon, the sponsors and letters of support started coming in, along with the checks, including one for $400 from her dad’s former third-grade teacher. Another man sent her a $500 check with a picture of his son, who was born with a cleft lip and palate. His son is 31 now, a musician and composer living in New York City. Paige keeps that man’s letter close. It tells her all she needs to know about her future: Anything is possible. “Do you still want to be a plastic surgeon when you grow up?” Samarrai asked her, as she and her mom got ready to leave late Wednesday afternoon for the long drive home to Bakersfield. The little girl nodded and did the math. If she continues to get straight A’s in school and studies really hard, she could be out of college and medical school by the time she’s 25 – 16 years from now. “Will you still be here, Doctor?” Paige asked. Samarrai smiled and nodded, handing her a small King Tut jewelry box from Egypt as a gift for all her efforts. “I’ll wait,” the doctor said. Dennis McCarthy’s column appears Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Sunday. [email protected] (818) 713-3749160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set! Paige Atkison and her mom, Lisa, were exhausted. The two-hour drive from their home in Bakersfield to see Paige’s doctor at Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in Woodland Hills had stretched to almost three hours, and they both knew from years of making this trek that the trip home wouldn’t be much better. But what the 9-year-old girl had to tell Dr. Labib Samarrai was too important for e-mail or a telephone call. Paige wanted to deliver the news personally so she could see the smile that always lit up Samarrai’s face whenever his favorite patient did something special.