Nury sits on a sofa in their home in Bogotá, Colombia, trying to recall the moment that her first-born child, Luciana, entered the world.
“She was born on a Friday morning, and the nurse immediately placed her high up on my chest so I couldn’t see her face,” she said.
She knew about Luciana’s cleft lip and cleft palate from an ultrasound she received seven months into her pregnancy, but she refused to acknowledge her daughter’s condition.
“I know now, through Operation Smile, that it is quite common. But then, I just didn’t believe that it would happen to my daughter,” Nury says, shaking her head.
Luciana has just enjoyed being bathed in a baby bath tub. She was constantly smiling at both of her parents as they played with her and splashed lukewarm water on her little body.
Now she is on her mother’s lap, dressed to go for a visit to Operation Smile Colombia’s care centre in the city. Tomorrow, she’s scheduled to receive surgery for her cleft lip – the first step in a long series of procedures and consultations that she will continue to have through her teenage years.
Photo: Rohanna Mertens.
The journey to this point has been tough and painful for Nury.
“The day after she was born, they brought her to me again to see if I could breastfeed her even though she had a cleft palate. I turned her towards me and she yawned and it made me very shocked. I started to cry and the nurse took her away from me,” Nury says, the memory filling her eyes with tears.
Later, when she tried to breastfeed Luciana again, it just didn’t work. She had to start feeding her baby with a spoon.
“It made me so sad to see her feed like that,” Nury says.
Unlike his wife, Daniel, Luciana’s father, didn’t feel anguish when his daughter was born.
“I was not surprised, or afraid or sad – I felt just pure happiness. I thanked our Lord when she was born,” Daniel says. “I know God has a meaning for our lives and if He wanted to send her to us like this, it is a pleasure above everything else.”
At the hospital where Luciana was born, a doctor told Daniel about Operation Smile – an organisation that offers expertise in treating cleft conditions at no cost to its patients or their families. The next day, Daniel called Operation Smile Colombia, which scheduled an appointment for Luciana within the following three weeks.
“The process was fast and I really liked the way they prioritised Luciana,” he says.
Photo: Rohanna Mertens.
Now it’s surgery day for Luciana, and Daniel and Nury arrive to the centre with their baby. The clinic is filled with children of different ages and their parents waiting for their consultations with various specialists.
“We are well-known by patients all over Colombia and also by referring specialists in their hospitals,” says Dr. Mauricio Herrera, a cleft surgeon and the medical director of Operation Smile Colombia. “We have become a specialist care centre for patients born with cleft, and hopefully we will continue developing in this direction and become a national reference centre for the whole country.”
At the centre, patients like Luciana will be able to receive care such as dental care, pre-operative care; ear, nose and throat treatments; nutrition advice; psychological therapy; and speech therapy. Parents can even take courses on how to best support their children.
Today, Operation Smile’s care centre in Bogotá provides treatment for half of the children born with cleft conditions in Colombia every year.
Mauricio explains why it’s so important to offer the whole family help and care: “When a child is born with a cleft, the whole family is affected and sometimes it can crush them if they start to accuse each other or themselves. It is easy to think that we treat only the children born with cleft, but actually it affects so many people around them, and that is why the work we do here on a daily basis is so important.”
Now, it’s Luciana’s turn to go inside the operating theatre. Mauricio and the surgical team takes care of her while Daniel and Nury patiently wait outside. Luciana will soon have her lip fixed and will return in the coming months for her palate surgery. Today is just the first of the many days she’ll spend at the centre. She will continue to see specialists here throughout her childhood.
Operation Smile Colombia medical director and cleft surgeon Dr. Mauricio Herrera, left, performs Luciana’s cleft lip surgery with support from plastic surgery resident Dr. Angela Rivera and instrumentation student Valeria Garcia. Photo: Rohanna Mertens.
“The plan for Luciana is for her to have a normal childhood,” Mauricio says while the nurses and anaesthesiologist carefully prepare her for surgery. “By the treatment we can offer her, she will have a chance to have a life just like any other child, without the stigma the cleft otherwise would have caused her.”
After a little less than an hour, Luciana’s surgery is complete and she’s brought into the recovery room to be reunited with her parents. Nury cries when she sees Luciana for the first time – but unlike when she was born, these are tears of relief and happiness.
Photo: Rohanna Mertens.
One year later, Luciana is a vibrant little girl who loves playing in the park. At Operation Smile Colombia’s care centre, she continues to receive comprehensive treatment from medical volunteers who provide the ongoing care that she needs to thrive and live a life filled with happiness.
“She looks perfect, just as I had dreamed of. If it hadn’t been for Operation Smile offering a solution for Luciana, it would have been just terrible,” Nury says. “For me, as a mother, I would have fallen into a depression because people’s prejudice also affects the parents of children born like this. So it would have been very frustrating for her, for me and for her father if there had been no solution like this.
“Moving forward, I want to give her all the best things. I think every mother wants that for her children: to give them a good education, a good learning process, growth, always being by her side. I want to be by her side during all those moments. She is my whole life.”