After Kensey was born, it took three gut-wrenching days for Rudis Casteñeda to build up the courage to see his daughter for the first time.
Kensey was born with a cleft lip and cleft palate, conditions Rudis had never seen before. The farmer, from a remote and extremely impoverished region of Honduras, was paralysed with fear and anxiety.
“I was just not able – not strong enough to go and see my baby,” Rudis said. “I imagined that when I saw my daughter I would go into shock.”
Rudis’ wife, Raquel, gave birth to Kensey via caesarean section after experiencing complications late in the pregnancy. Immediately after being born, their baby was rushed away to the neonatal intensive care unit. Kensey’s cleft conditions weren’t detected by ultrasound and neither parent saw her face when she was born, nor were they given a clear explanation as to what was wrong with their daughter in those frantic moments.
“My wife got very upset and started to shout and scream and I came and calmed her,” Rudis said. “I asked, ‘What happened to you?’ She shouted at me, ‘The doctors told me that my baby has a problem with her mouth and they don’t know what it is. ’”
Eventually, doctors explained that their daughter suffered from cleft lip and cleft palate. Rudis and Raquel were devastated. On the third day after Kensey’s birth, Rudis decided to face his fear.
However, before he saw Kensey, a doctor suggested to Rudis that he give up on his daughter because of her cleft conditions. Though the doctor didn’t offer a specific course of action, he said to Rudis, “Why don’t you give me your daughter?”
Rudis was appalled.
“My daughter is not an animal to be given away,” Rudis said. “I am her father and it is I who will look after my daughter.”
Finally, Rudis saw Kensey for the first time.
“It was very difficult for me to see her cleft lip and cleft palate. I had never expected her to have a problem,” Rudis said. “But that passed and I lifted her up and carried her – my baby – I kissed her with love.”
Fortunately, a kind doctor connected Rudis with Central American Medical Outreach, a United States-based non-profit working in Honduras, which provided Rudis with the phone number for Operation Smile Honduras.
Rudis called Operation Smile Honduras and left a message. Coincidentally, a neighbour gave Rudis the same phone number, which was given to him by an electricity meter reader from Ingeniería Gerencia (IG), the national electrical utility company. Starting in 2014, Operation Smile Honduras partnered with IG to identify the estimated 1,000 untreated cleft cases remaining in the country by having IG meter readers ask costumers if they knew of anyone in their households or communities living with a cleft condition.
Soon after, Operation Smile Honduras Patient Coordinator Stephany Martínez called back and told Rudis there was a medical mission coming to Santa Rosa de Copán in three months, which meant that Kensey would be old enough to be a candidate for timely, life-changing surgery.
After enduring so much hardship through the first days of their daughter’s life, Rudis and Raquel rejoiced. They would have never been able to afford surgery for Kensey, so the opportunity the mission presented gave her parents hope.
Rudis pulled together all of the money he could to pay for the bus ride to Santa Rosa de Copán. When the mission arrived to town, so did Rudis and Kensey.
The mission site was bustling with activity as medical teams provided comprehensive health evaluations to make sure their patients were healthy enough to receive surgery. After the evaluation, Rudis and Kensey waited alongside the other patients and their families to learn who would be receiving surgery during this medical mission.
It was then that Rudis met Alex Guerrero, the father of a child who received cleft surgery from Operation Smile Honduras three years earlier. Inspired to make sure families in Honduras never had to experience the anguish of being unable to get cleft surgery for their children, Alex took it upon himself to scour dirt roads and impoverished communities to find patients and bring them to care at Operation Smile medical missions and its care centre in Tegucigalpa, Honduras’ capital city.
Known as “Don Alex” by patients, their families and his colleagues – the use of the honorific “Don” conveys respect for that person – Don Alex made fast friends with Rudis and eased his nerves when he began to worry that his daughter would not be selected for surgery.
Throughout the mission, the Operation Smile Honduras team took notice of Rudis’ unwavering devotion to making sure Kensey received the surgery that she needed.
Soon after, the medical team told Rudis that Kensey was healthy enough to receive cleft lip surgery – the first of several surgeries she will need to fully correct her cleft lip and cleft palate. Rudis was elated that his daughter would receive surgery at just 3 months old.
When it was time for Kensey’s procedure, Rudis was nervous as doctors took his daughter away into the operating room. He drew upon his faith as Operation Smile medical volunteers provided Kensey with world-class cleft lip surgery.
“I put myself in God’s hands so my daughter’s surgery would be successful,” Rudis said. “God is happy because three months after her birth, my daughter was operated on.”
When he was reunited with Kensey after her successful surgery, Rudis poured out emotions. Though he didn’t realise it in the moment, it was then that Rudis became dedicated to serving fellow Honduran families through Operation Smile.
Four months after Kensey received free cleft lip surgery, the phone rang for Rudis.
It was Operation Smile Honduras, but this time they were asking for his help.
Editor’s Note: In the 20-year history of Operation Smile Honduras, our medical volunteers have delivered free cleft surgery to more than 4,500 patients. However for most of this time, all too many patients born with cleft conditions were not able to get surgery when they were babies, which is the ideal age range for the best results.
In 2014, there were about 1,000 cleft cases remaining in the country and many of those potential patients were adults, teens and children. Together with Operation Smile Honduras, we made a commitment to find them and end their needless suffering by making sure they receive the safe and effective surgery they deserve.
Supported by medical missions and the ongoing care provided at Operation Smile Honduras’ care centre, a strategy was put into motion to identify and recruit potential patients, many of them among the poorest and hardest-to-reach in the country.
We’re proud to report that the effort was successful.
Now, the remaining patients in Honduras who need surgery are nearly all babies and toddlers. For the first time in the country’s history, Operation Smile has made sure that cleft surgery in Honduras is truly SET: safe, effective and timely.
On May 11, 2017, Operation Smile Co-Founder and CEO Dr. Bill Magee made the historic announcement alongside the President and First Lady of Honduras.
Though we’ve reached this historic milestone, our work is far from done.
In this series, we share the stories of how Operation Smile Honduras was able to find and provide surgery for the final patients of the country’s backlog of cleft cases.