Meet Our Patients: Oujda, Morocco

Meet Radouane

Photo: Jasmin Shah.

Nearly three years ago, Safia gave birth alone at home to her son, Radouane. Although seeing his cleft lip made her question what kind of future her son would have, the love Safia had for him only strengthened.

“I was not afraid. I’d seen kids like that before, and I knew that this was the gods’ fate. I’m grateful for what the gods gave me,” Safia said.

Friends and family members felt only love toward Radouane after seeing his cleft lip for the first time, looking at him without malice or disgust.

“Where I come from, people were so friendly and supportive,” Safia said. “They said that he’s just another human. He’s not that different.”

Sadly, there were people in their community who let their lack of knowledge and stigma surrounding cleft conditions influence their ability to treat Radouane and Safia with the kindness they deserve.

“Each person who mocks him is mocking themselves,” Safia said. “It shows that they weren’t raised well, and that shouldn’t be the case.”

Last October, Safia learned about Operation Smile Morocco. Her eldest son saw the organisation’s Facebook page and read that it provides free surgical care for children like Radouane. Hopeful that she’d found a solution for her son, Safia traveled to the organisation’s care centre in Oujda where medical volunteers and staff began the initial stages of his cleft care process.

It was at the centre that Operation Smile Morocco informed Safia that her son would have an opportunity to receive surgery at its next medical mission taking place in Agadir.

But with Agadir being more than 600 miles away and having her other children at home to think about, Safia knew she couldn’t make that journey.

After patiently waiting nearly five months, the time came for Safia and Radouane to leave their small village located on the countryside and head toward Oujda for Operation Smile Morocco’s March mission.

Safia traveled to the nearest province of Taourirt, where some of their family members live. Three days later, Safia departed from their relatives home and journeyed two and a half hours by bus, determined to be some of the first people to arrive.

On the first day of screening, Safia and Radouane sat among hundreds of families of children living with unrepaired cleft conditions who’d all been brought together for the same reason – to get their child life-changing care from Operation Smile.

Initially shy and quiet, Radouane remained glued to his mother’s side and wary of the unfamiliar environment.

But slowly, Radouane’s cheerful and outgoing personality bloomed, and volunteers soon heard his infectious laugh across the screening site. As Safia watched her son run around stomping bubbles and playing with other children, the love and pride she had for him was evident.

“He’s my son. I love him, no matter what,” she said.

Later that same day, Safia received the news that Radouane had passed his comprehensive health evaluation and was cleared for surgery. She felt confident that, with safe surgery, her joyful son could live a happy and healthy life and receive an education just like her other children.

A few days later, after volunteers guided her back to the recovery room where Radouane began to slowly wake up from surgery, Safia couldn’t help but smile as she held him in her arms.

“I’m so grateful for the volunteers who are here. If you don’t help these children, who will?”

Meet Elmehdi

Eight-month-old Elmehdi and his mom, Soumia.

The shock Soumia, mother to 8-month-old Elmehdi, felt after giving birth turned to determination in her journey of actively seeking out a solution for her son.

“When he was born, I was scared,” Soumia said. “I didn’t know what a cleft lip was. I’d never heard of it.”

It was through social media that Soumia heard about the Operation Smile Morocco’s medical mission in Oujda. Finally seeing a solution in sight, Soumia channeled that hope to empower herself to keep going and to never let anything prevent them from getting Elmehdi the care he needed.

“I live in Tafoughalt. It took me two hours to get here. I took the bus. I’m tired, but I want my baby to get help,” Soumia said.

Elmehdi smiled as he and his family continued through each stage of the screening process. After Elmehdi passed his comprehensive health evaluation and was selected to receive surgery, Soumia expressed her relief and appreciation to the volunteers involved with this mission and every other Operation Smile mission.

“Everyone is so nice. I’m so grateful to Operation Smile. I’m happy and Elmehdi is happy,” she said.

Meet Meriem

Photo: Jasmin Shah.

On a day that’s oftentimes the happiest of a mother’s life, Khadija felt fear and uncertainty when she looked at her daughter, Meriem.

“For the first two hours, I was so scared. But slowly, I accepted the fact that I had a daughter with a cleft lip,” Khadija said. “It’s God’s fate. God creates us the way he wants.”

Khadija’s friends and family instantly loved Meriem, treating her and cherishing her like any other child in their family.

For many parents living in low- and middle-income countries, with children who are born with cleft conditions, safe surgical care is often inaccessible or unknown. Thankfully, this wasn’t the case for Khadija.

Immediately after giving birth, she learned that surgery was possible, which allowed Khadija to remain hopeful and confident that her baby girl would one day receive a new and beautiful smile.

But for many families who lack the awareness or knowledge of organisations like Operation Smile, they spend months, or even years, never knowing that there are solutions out there for their children.

The doctor who helped Khadija give birth calmed her fears and shared that Operation Smile Morocco could help her and her daughter.

“Despite the fact that I’d already accepted her no matter what, it was such a relief to know that there was a solution,” Khadija said.

While Khadija always cherished her daughter the way she was, others from their community treated Meriem with disdain, regarding her as someone who didn’t matter.

“What I found the most challenging was people pointing at my daughter for being different. Not my family, but the strangers would ask, ‘Why is she like that?’ and wondered if I was responsible for the cleft,” she said.

After learning about this upcoming mission, Khadija didn’t hesitate to make the 12-hour journey from Casablanca.

Now, looking at Meriem’s new smile, Khadija said that she’s relieved her daughter will never have to endure teasing or hear the hurtful comments people once said.

“My wish for my daughter is that she will get a good education. She will grow up and live a normal life.”

A message from Karen Jaques, Operation Smile UK CEO

Dear friends,

Above all I hope this message finds you safe and well. As part of the Operation Smile family, you have  helped thousands of children smile again by providing priceless, life changing cleft surgery, so  I wanted to reach out to you in this time of uncertainty with an update on how Operation Smile is responding to Covid-19.

Firstly, please know that the support you have given us has already done so much to strengthen healthcare systems in the countries where we work. Through our focus on cleft surgery, we have educated and trained healthcare workers not only in surgery but in life support, nursing and Anaesthesia. This training will now help save lives all around the world. Here are some examples of recent activities:

  • Just two weeks ago in Malawi, three UK anaesthetists delivered seven days training for 80 Anaesthesia Clinical Officers, upskilling their knowledge in safe anaesthesia and airway care which will now help with the Covid-19 response in Malawi.
  • In Ethiopia, we have helped train over 50 anaesthetists, and equipped the regional hospital in Jimma with essential equipment which will support their provision of critical care.
  • Last year, Operation Smile delivered American Heart Association life support training to 2,370 medical personnel which will save lives. This happens in every country that we work in.

As a medical charity working in developing countries, we have formed a Covid-19 Response Team to clearly identify where we can help our Operation Smile family overseas. We are doing everything we can to find ways to help to support the fight against Covid -19.

  • Local Operation Smile teams will continue to provide safe surgery for children born with cleft conditions, where it is possible and safe to do so.
  • Where possible, we will continue to provide nutritional support for at risk infants and as we gather information on cleft patients for our registers, our outreach coordinators will become part of the support network for communities if Covid -19 spreads.
  • Our registers will remain active so that when surgery does become possible, we are able to reach children left behind as quickly as possible.
  • Led by Dr Ruben Ayala, Chief Medical Officer, our senior leadership team is evaluating ways we can directly support the fight against Covid -19 with Ministries of Health requests and through our extensive medical networks. This will include redirecting essential consumables such as masks, gowns and gloves and some equipment into hospitals.

There is so much that we have done and will do together.  We will keep our website up to date with our latest news. If you have any questions regarding our work at this time please contact us at 020 3475 5126 or info@operationsmile.org.uk.

Thank you so much for your ongoing support. It’s humbling to see the very best of humanity through you, at the most difficult of times.

With our very best wishes to you and your family as we weather this storm together.

Karen Jaques
Chief Executive Officer
Operation Smile United Kingdom

It’s never too late for a new smile

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 037, Qi Xiu Hu, Female, 66 years old, BCL, Before. Peoples Hospital of Dafang County. Operation Smile 2016 mission to Dafang, Guizhou Province, China. April 13th - 19th 2016. (Operation Smile Photo - Zute Lightfoot)

At 66 years old, Qi Xiu has done many things for many people in her life. She has been a wife, a mother, a grandmother and farmer. For years she raised her family in the remote countryside, farming corn.

Qi Xiu was born with a cleft lip and has been taunted and laughed at for her whole life. She never knew that a surgery to repair her cleft was available so she endured the teasing. Qi Xiu had never known anyone else with a cleft lip or cleft palate.

Qi Xiu recently moved into town and now lives only a few minutes away from a hospital. She heard about an organisation called Operation Smile, which provides free cleft surgeries, just a few days before their next medical mission was about to start.

Excited, Qi Xiu travelled to the mission site with her son, daughter-in-law and daughter. After a comprehensive health evaluation, Qi Xiu waited to see if she would be cleared and scheduled for surgery.

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037, 037, Qi Xiu Hu, Female, 66 years old, BCL, Before. Walking to surgery with Clinical Coordinator Pugay Merlina from the Philippines. Peoples Hospital of Dafang County. Operation Smile 2016 mission to Dafang, Guizhou Province, China. April 13th - 19th 2016. (Operation Smile Photo - Zute Lightfoot)

The next day, Qi Xiu learned that she would receive surgery. From that moment, she never stopped smiling. Qi Xiu was not nervous or scared, just ready to have her lip repaired after so many years of living in sadness.

After a short surgery, Qi Xiu was resting in her room and enjoying her amazing new smile. Qi Xiu said she was thankful that each one of the medical volunteers was so nice and caring. When a volunteer asked Qi Xiu how she felt after receiving the surgery Qi Xiu said, “I am looking forward to taking my grandchildren to school and now no one will laugh at me.”

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037, Qi Xiu Hu, Female, 66 years old, BCL, After. Hu received surgery during Operation Smile's 2016 mission to Dafang and returned for assessment during the 2017 mission. Her wish after surgery was to walk her grandson to school without people laughing at her. Peoples Hospital of Dafang County. Guizhou Province, China. (Operation Smile Photo - Zute Lightfoot)

A year later Qi Xiu looks like a completely different woman. When she returned home after her surgery her husband of 50 years who has always loved her no matter what thought she looked very different but most all he was happy that she was healthy after her surgery.

Qi Xiu loves her new smile although she says her nose and lip felt very strange for a long time. In thanking Operation Smile for their care and attention she simply said, “I love my smile, nobody laughs at me anymore.”

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 037, Qi Xiu Hu, Female, 66 years old, BCL, After. Hu received surgery during Operation Smile's 2016 mission to Dafang and returned for assessment during the 2017 mission. Her wish after surgery was to walk her grandson to school without people laughing at her. Peoples Hospital of Dafang County. Guizhou Province, China. (Operation Smile Photo - Zute Lightfoot)

Britany’s Care Centre Connection

Cintia didn’t understand what was wrong with her daughter, Britany, when she was born.

Her daughter was born with a cleft lip and cleft palate, conditions she had never seen or heard of before.

“I felt like my family didn’t show me any support,” Cintia said. “They were looking at this problem as if it was nothing. I felt very lonely.”

Cintia lives with her 3-year-old twin sons and Britany, 10, on the outskirts of Tegucigalpa, Honduras. Her husband works in another city and returns home once per month. She works as a street vendor selling cakes.

When Britany was 4 months old, she received surgery to repair her cleft lip at Hospital San Felipe in Tegucigalpa. However, the surgery was not performed by a plastic surgeon and the stitches broke open soon after, leaving her with an open wound.

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Britany at 10 months old with her mother, Cintia, before surgery at the Operation Smile Honduras care centre. Photo: Angela Weedon.

Hope was not lost.

“I was told about Operation Smile Honduras and that they had a specialist team that could do this at their centre,” Cintia said. “I went there and they gave her a medical evaluation. When she was 10 months old, her lip was repaired again.”

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Britany at 1 year old, after surgery. Photo: Marc Ascher.

The staff at Operation Smile Honduras’ year-round cleft care centre, which is only steps away from Hospital San Felipe, has since performed additional surgeries to correct Britany’s cleft palate. Since then, she has come to the centre regularly for the comprehensive care offered there.

“Our centre is really something extraordinary because we attend to patients in so many different areas; like psychology, dentistry, orthodontics, speech therapy as well as paediatrics, surgery and anaesthesiology,” said Jeanie Barjum, Executive Director at Operation Smile Honduras.

“Even though the appointments are booked in advance, we have new patients coming in almost every day.

“We see disheartened parents coming through the door of our centre, but they can meet immediately with our psychologist. You can see a complete change. They are filled with hope that their children will be able to smile.”

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Britany at 9 years old, holding a photo of herself before her first Operation Smile surgery. Photo: Rohanna Mertens.

In 1997, Operation Smile extended its medical programs to six cities across Honduras, including San Pedro Sula, Santa Rosa de Copán and Tegucigalpa.

Opened in 2007, the care centre in Tegucigalpa offers free surgeries and post-operative care to cleft patients, who can also take advantage of long-term, comprehensive services including audiology and psychology consultations.

“Honduras is a small country with almost 9 million people, and we have given more than 4,500 smiles during the 20 years since we started working here,” Jeanie said. “Since the opening of the centre, we have had more than 25,000 appointments. This is a very high number if we consider that one in every 500 children born here has a cleft condition.”

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Jeanie Barjum, Executive Director at Operation Smile Honduras, with a patient and her father. Photo: Rohanna Mertens.

Operation Smile’s impact is something that Dr. Edwin Javíer Cruz, Executive Director of Hospital San Felipe, has witnessed firsthand.

“We have been working together with Operation Smile for the last 20 years, and it has been very successful because together we have given so many surgeries to people from the whole country,” Dr. Cruz said. “These types of surgeries are very expensive in the private sector and far too expensive for the majority of the people in our nation. Operation Smile is definitely an organisation that is changing the lives of people in whole communities.”

The hospital benefits from hosting Operation Smile’s international and Honduran teams for the brigadas or medical missions, according to Dr. Cruz. Hospital San Felipe doesn’t offer plastic surgery, but his staff’s exposure to the medical missions allows for cross-collaboration.

“The staff is getting a lot of experience since we only do these kind of surgeries when Operation Smile is here,” Dr. Cruz said. “My staff also gains experience and knowledge to bring with them if they go on to work outside of the hospital – for example, in private clinics.”

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Stephany Martínez, Operation Smile Honduras Patient Coordinator, embraces Britany at one of her care centre visits. Photo: Rohanna Mertens.

Next door at the care centre, a dozen patients and their parents waited for their appointments. Stephany Martínez is the patient coordinator and keeps track of the hundreds of patients on their list.

“Our patients are mostly very poor. They have to travel far to reach the centre or a hospital where we have medical missions, and they lack the knowledge about the possibilities and benefits of surgery,” Stephany said. “We hear many shocking stories. For example, we had a 58-year-old woman with a cleft lip who had never had surgery because people in her village told her a surgery would be life-threatening.”

Her colleague, dentist and odontologist Dr. Gisela López, shared: “Many people might know about us, but they don’t know that the service we offer is for free. Even if they have problems paying for transportation, Operation Smile will pay for their transportation to the centre, especially for those living outside the city.”

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Dr. Gisela López, dentist and odontologist at Operation Smile Honduras. Photo: Rohanna Mertens.

Gisela’s role – and the roles of all of the medical specialists working at the centre – involves more than just providing medical care.

“Many times, it is more than giving them medical care. You show them affection, you tell them how handsome they are or you just make sure that the child feels accepted,” Gisela said. “We see all our children at the centre as beautiful.”

Gloria Vilchez is the care centre’s audiologist and speech therapist. She knows the importance of having patients and their parents regularly visit the centre for ongoing treatment.

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Audiologist and speech therapist Gloria Vilchez examines a young cleft patient. Photo: Rohanna Mertens.

“The children here need a lot of stimulation. We live in a country with a low level of education and many parents don’t know that they need to stimulate their children from an early age to be able to help them in their speech development,” Gloria said. “And they need to practice at home, not only here. So the work we are doing here helps because we can give steady support to the parents that need it.”

Now in fifth grade, Britany enjoys her studies and playing with her friends. She dreams of one day becoming a police officer so she can help people.

Britany wasn’t the only person in her family whose life was changed by Operation Smile Honduras. Inspired by Britany’s treatment at the care centre, her mother, Cintia, is currently studying to become a nurse.

Cintia said she wants to be able to give back to other what she has received from Operation Smile Honduras and that one day she hopes to become a medical volunteer for the organisation.

But above all, she is grateful that her daughter received her life-changing surgeries and continues to benefit from the ongoing care she deserves.

“I am so happy because she has been able to live a normal life – she doesn’t feel any shame, she has no problems and is just a happy girl,” Cintia said. “I imagine that if she didn’t have those surgeries, her life would have been very difficult, filled with bullying. Children who can’t speak properly are bullied at her school. She has good speech and she is in good health.

“I really want to thank God and Operation Smile. Without them, she wouldn’t be happy like this.”

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Britany at 10 years old. Photo: Rohanna Mertens.

A new life for Moses

When Moses was born with a cleft lip and cleft palate in rural Ghana, his mother Aba was heartbroken. She didn’t know what to do and struggled even to feed Moses because of his condition.
Aba brought Moses to Operation Smile, hoping he would be treated, but at 3 months old and suffering from malnutrition, he was too young and frail.

We made a promise to Aba that Moses would get his chance to receive surgery. She was given nutritional advice to build his strength, so he would be ready for surgery at our next medical mission.

Aba never gave up. For his cleft lip alone, Moses missed two chances at surgery due to his low weight and fragile health. For one, Aba brought him on a 19-hour trip almost halfway across Ghana.

Finally, two years after she first came to Operation Smile, the trust Aba placed in us came to fruition when Moses received his cleft lip surgery. He is now almost out of the woods. He still needs surgery to fix his cleft palate, but Aba knows she can count on us for help.

An Update from Operation Smile Chief Medical Officer Dr. Ruben Ayala on the COVID-19 Pandemic

Dear friends and Operation Smile supporters from around the world,

As the Operation Smile global family, we all believe that every day gives us a chance to serve, aid our communities, offer opportunities for our children and help heal humanity.

Today, we are in the midst of extraordinary times. Grounded in empathy, solidarity and concern for one another, our actions require the utmost measure, thoughtfulness and decisiveness.

The worldwide spread of the new coronavirus that causes the disease known as COVID-19 poses incredible challenges. Safeguarding the health and well-being of all, including everyone involved with Operation Smile, has been at the forefront of our activities. The safety of patients, caregivers, volunteers, staff, supporters and partners in each of our communities around the world has always been, and will continue to be, our top priority.

As new knowledge and evidence has become available from efforts guided by medical experts and top scientists, our senior leadership and our COVID-19 response team have remained watchful. We have constantly monitored the evolution of this disease from the onset.

The World Health Organisation declared COVID-19 as a pandemic on 11 March 2020. On 6 March 2020, after careful consideration of information produced by international health agencies and consultations with our partners where we work, we decided to suspend all international travel for volunteers who were to serve on Operation Smile programmes and activities.

This decision currently stands through 31 May 2020, and this period may be extended pending further evaluation of the state of COVID-19 globally.

For the time being, all programmes including medical missions, education and training, and public activities in Operation Smile programme countries have been temporarily paused. This includes Operation Smile’s year-round care centres. We are taking a case-by-case approach in consultation with our in-country executives and anticipate further cancellations and postponements through April, May and June.

We are also fine-tuning strategies to ensure we can amplify our efforts toward our patients once the situation improves. All decisions related to the resumption of our medical programmes will continue to be made in collaboration with our in-country teams, their local health ministries and other key stakeholders with safety as the top priority.

Finally, we understand that, in many countries, the talent of our volunteers is being directed toward emergent health care for people affected by COVID-19. We thank these heroes for their selfless and courageous service.

Around the world, we are also redirecting essential supplies and equipment, continuing nutritional support efforts where possible, and working with a multitude of partners and ministries of health to assist in this unprecedented time of need. In the spirit of solidarity, we’re working hard to find the most meaningful ways that we can to support the health needs of the communities in which we work.

In the words of WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, “let’s all look out for each other, because we need each other.”

Now, more than ever, we must rely on each other to act with kindness, compassion and empathy.

From our global family to yours, we wish you and everyone in your community the best of health.

We invite you to refer to the WHO’s website for COVID-19 for further information and guidance.

In health,

Dr. Ruben Ayala, Chief Medical Officer, Operation Smile

An update from Dr Ayala, 20th April 2020

Ngan’s new smile

Ngan’s name means “star,” but she wasn’t able to smile brightly

In Vietnamese, Ngan’s name means “star,” but she wasn’t able to smile brightly when she was born with a cleft lip and cleft palate.

Ngan’s family lives on the equivalent of $1.25 per day in the small, isolated village of Quy Nhon province in southern Vietnam. Without help, her family would never have been able to afford the reconstructive surgery that would change Ngan’s life and give her a bright future. But when Ngan’s parents heard that Operation Smile was conducting a surgical mission in Danang, Vietnam, they did everything in their power to bring Ngan to the medical mission. Ngan and her family travelled more than 200 miles for the chance to heal her smile.

Ngan received life-changing surgery on her cleft lip and cleft palate and now, 10 years later, she is a happy, healthy, vibrant girl – with a smile that shows it. As a hardworking student herself, Ngan dreams of becoming a teacher and allowing other children the chance to enjoy reading, writing and learning as much as she does.

Before she had surgery, Ngan’s facial deformity hindered her social engagement and even her involvement in school. Now, with the confidence she gained from her new smile, Ngan can reach her full potential. As a teacher, she can change the lives of others by helping the children in her village gain an education. Ngan’s parents say they had given up everything but hope before Operation Smile gave their daughter the chance to see her dreams become a reality. “Many poor families in our province will abandon their child if a baby is born with a cleft lip or cleft palate,” Ngan’s father said. He never wants this to happen, knowing how miraculous the transformation is with a free surgery through Operation Smile.

Ngan was saved by the gift of surgery and her father knows that other children will be, too, if his family can bring greater understanding of cleft conditions to their community. Ngan’s parents now actively refer other families of children born with facial deformities to Operation Smile in Vietnam. They are determined to ensure that every child has the opportunity for a bright future, regardless of their appearance. Today Ngan laughs with friends and smiles brightly. Her life has changed significantly.

Introducing nurse Clarisse

Clarisse is a Recovery Room nurse and currently works at Macclesfield District General Hospital. She got involved with Operation Smile for the first time in 2009, when she was invited by her former professor Dr Summer Evangelista to be a part of an international mission in Cebu. Clarisse was impressed by the work Operation Smile does, and has since been on 30 international missions, to countries including Myanmar, Morocco, Guatemala and Nicaragua.

 

When did you get involved with Operation Smile?

I got involved with Operation Smile in 2009 because my mentor and university professor invited me to volunteer on an Operation Smile mission in Cebu. The moment I saw the kids after surgery and their transformation I got hooked with it and I have been doing it until now, participating in 30 international and local medical missions in places including the Philippines, Morocco, Guatemala and Nicaragua.

What do you do during a medical mission?

I am a recovery room nurse, so I take care of the patient from the operating theatre and I help them recover after surgery. The recovery room is also the area where parents see their child for the first time after surgery. This is the part that I enjoy most because this is the moment when you see all the emotions of the parents who are happy to see their child for the first time after surgery. It’s so overwhelming to witness their happiness to see the instant transformation of their children.

 

What is it like to be there at the medical mission site as families start to arrive? 

On screening day at the beginning of each mission families start to arrive one by one and as volunteers we can understand what we are going to do to help these children.  I often imagine how these patients would look after surgery and how their lives will change, so it’s really overwhelming. In these moments I feel that I can be a part of something really magical, like transforming these beautiful smiles, to be even more beautiful after surgery.

What are the biggest challenges you faced while volunteering for Operation Smile?

I can say that the biggest challenge I have faced on my previous missions would be language and communicating with patients, because families don’t always speak English, but we get lots of help from local volunteers and translators. Another challenge is adjusting to the equipment that we have because it is not like the normal setup that we have in hospitals back home. However, everybody helps a lot during the mission and we make sure to provide exceptional and safe care to our patients.

How has volunteering with Operation Smile impacted you professionally and personally?

Volunteering for Operation Smile has really inspired me a lot because I started in the Philippines and I just really wanted to know how to work with other people outside my country. I think it is an overwhelming feeling to be helping people, transforming beautiful smiles, these children, these families who can’t afford surgery and I have the capabilities to help them. That’s the most inspiring thing and that really hits me that my skills can really help.

How and why you would encourage other people to get involved?

I do encourage others to get involved with Operation Smile just because of the instant transformation that they will see. If you hear the stories of these children, learning about their background and their families, you will hear that they are being bullied with other children making fun of them for their cleft. However, we can change this condition. When we go back and see the patients for their post-op evaluations, we are overwhelmed by hearing the children saying that nobody is bullying them anymore because they can speak better and their face is now healed. If you hear these stories, you just want to donate your time or money to ensure they can get surgery. It is really inspiring to help.. You can’t really imagine the impact you are having on children, their family and their future as well.

This Family’s Message of Thanks

 

Seven-month-old Yi Miang and his mom, Lu Gong’e, during Operation Smile China’s 2016 medical mission to Lincang. Photo: Zute Lightfoot.

No prenatal check-up or ultrasound Lu Gong’e received indicated that the lives of her and her husband, Tian Shun, would soon change forever.

With healthy 6-year-old twins at home, Lu Gong’e didn’t anticipate that her pregnancy would be any different with her son, Yi Miang.

But on the day that Lu Gong’e and Tian Shun believed would be one of the happiest of their lives, the couple was confronted with heartbreak and shock.

Yi Miang was born with a cleft lip and palate.

Doctors at the hospital didn’t explain the cause of Yi Miang’s cleft. They simply said that surgery was possible but not at that hospital.

In that moment, Lu Gong’e’s mind filled with seemingly unanswerable questions and thoughts of uncertainty as she held her baby boy in her arms.

“How is this possible?”

Photo: Zute Lightfoot.

Looking at their son, Tian Shun and Lu Gong’e couldn’t understand how one child could be born with a cleft condition while their twin girls were born perfectly healthy.

After the family arrived back home, some members of their community blamed them, believing that they had done something to cause Yi Miang’s cleft clip. Lu Gong’e and Tian Shun faced stigmatisation and judgement from those who lacked proper knowledge on the causes of cleft conditions, which can be the result of environmental or hereditary factors.

Filled with love for Yi Miang, Lu Gong’e didn’t pay mind to the teasing or harmful comments.

Instead, Tian Shun and Lu Gong’e immediately sought out other hospitals in the area, tirelessly looking for a specialist with the skills and training to help Yi Miang. But even after months of searching, they remained without a solution.

Then one day, a representative from Operation Smile China visited their village and shared information that changed everything.

Tian Shun and Lu Gong’e learned that the organisation specialises in cleft lip and cleft palate repairs. They were also informed that an upcoming medical mission was taking place in Lincang, where Yi Miang could receive safe surgery at no cost to them.

Finally, the solution they’d searched for since Yi Miang’s birth was in sight.

“When I heard there was a mission, I was very excited,” Lu Gong’e said. “I travelled a whole day to the hospital, and my heart is full of happiness.”

Lu Gong’e and 7-month-old Yi Miang travelled 20 hours by bus to reach Lincang. While she was aware that cleft conditions existed, what Lu Gong’e saw upon arrival shocked her.

Hundreds of families with children affected by cleft conditions had travelled to the mission site just as her and Yi Miang had. Until then, she had no idea that one in 500-750 babies are born with cleft conditions.

Patient safety is at the forefront of every Operation Smile mission. To ensure that Yi Miang was healthy enough to undergo surgery, medical volunteers performed a comprehensive health evaluation, checking his blood pressure and other vitals before clearing him for surgery.

Volunteer pediatrician Dr. Elena Belonogova from Russia examines Yi Miang during screening day. Photo: Zute Lightfoot.

Lu Gong’e was thrilled when Operation Smile China volunteers placed Yi Miang on the surgical schedule. But at the same time, envisioning her son receiving surgery on his cleft lip scared her.

When Yi Miang entered the operating room, Lu Gong’e patiently sat in the waiting room, clutching his small jacket with tears falling down her cheeks.

A short time later, her worry turned into tears of happiness when Lu Gong’e reunited with Yi Miang and saw his beautiful new smile.

Photo: Zute Lightfoot.

Tian Shun and Lu Gong’e were overcome with relief at their son’s transformation. Sitting by Yi Miang’s side as he rested after surgery, they knew that they would return to a future mission so Operation Smile China could repair their son’s cleft palate.

Before leaving the mission, Lu Gong’e and members of the volunteer medical team shared a beautiful moment when she told them that she couldn’t wait to show Yi Miang all of the pictures she’d taken during the mission. She wanted her son to see the faces of all the people who helped give him a brighter future.

Five months later, after traveling 10 hours to the 2017 medical mission in Dafang, Tian Shun, Lu Gong’e and Yi Miang reunited with the Operation Smile China team.

People at the mission described Yi Miang as a happy, outgoing 1-year-old who loves to laugh. Medical volunteers were delighted to announce that he was cleared to receive palate surgery.

“Before the first surgery, I was very nervous,” Lu Gong’e said. “But the surgery was so successful. I’m very confident about this surgery, and my heart is calm.”

Photo: Zute Lightfoot.

As Lu Gong’e and Tian Shun waited for Operation Smile China’s medical team to perform surgery on Yi Miang’s cleft palate, they wrote a letter thanking the doctors, nurses and volunteers who’d helped change their lives.

The letter has been translated from Mandarin below:

“First of all, I would like to convey my appreciation to this mission. And I want to thank all of the staff and volunteers from this mission.

Go team!

The welcome that everyone showed to my child before surgery really touched me, and I wish to show my appreciation to every single one of you for the concern and care you gave to my child.

Everyone here smiles so brightly. A smile can really relax people, and these smiles make me feel that there is nothing to worry about and to be calm and stress free.

Now, I’m outside of the operating room waiting for a perfect outcome.

My thoughts are that I wish that my baby will grow up to be a person like you and be able to convey your love to more people and society in general.

When Yi Miang grows up, I’ll tell him everything that happened at the mission. I’ll show him photos from the mission so that he will know what he received today.

This is not an easy task as so many people contributed to his health. I want him to be thankful to every single one of you.”

One-year-old Yi Miang poses for a photo with his parents, Lu Gong’e and Tian Shun, during Operation Smile China’s 2017 medical mission in Dafang. Photo: Zute Lightfoot.

Meet Edward, Volunteer Nurse from Ghana

Gentle and smiling Edward Sarpong hails from Agogo in the Ashanti region of Ghana. Qualified for 8 years, Edward has been a nurse volunteer since April 2017 supporting 4 medical missions in Ho and Koforidua in Ghana and one in China. His first mission to Ethiopia in March 2019 was during the Surgical Rotation led by Per Hall, UK volunteer surgeon.

When asked why he volunteered for Operation Smile, Edward said “I was working as a paediatric nurse and came across many cleft children in the ward. One teenage parent brought in a child with a cleft lip and palate who died on my shift and I was so upset that wanted to find a way to bring hope to these children and their mothers. My research led me to Operation Smile.”

After his BLS course and credentialing by Operation Smile, Edward feels that “the exposure to different nurses from different countries gives me an opportunity to keep learning from them. Operation Smile is really touching lives, not only of the patients but the healthcare systems too. Change is happening all over the world because of them. The knowledge we gain is being shared on our return home. As Africans, we are learning how to change the lives of our people and through our volunteering for Operation Smile, we can give back to our country, through service to our community.”

Ghana now leads its own local missions. For Edward, “its rewarding to be part of the Ghanaian team which manage surgical missions across the nation, as we find and treat children and adults with cleft, so in need.”

Like all our volunteers, Edward has many heart rendering stories to tell. On his first mission, he “went to the patient shelter and met a mother who had been told she had given birth to a lizard. This mother kept her child hidden for over a year, never taking her outside, afraid of reactions. She was accused of adultery and was told that her child was a curse from the gods. Her marriage broke down and she even thought of killing her child. But she did not and she loved her child despite everything”. Edward went on to say, “that through her tears, this mother said she could now rebuild her life and her child’s and that the cleft operation given by Operation Smile had changed their lives forever”.

These experiences have “made me want to volunteer with Operation Smile whenever they ask me, wherever they send me”.

Operation Smile depends on volunteer network from many nations. Like Edward, they are the ones that continually change lives across the globe and we remain grateful for all they do.