Anyone who sees this young man, bicycling down the streets of Bogotá, Colombia, and entering Universidad El Bosque with a book bag slung over his shoulder, would never imagine that doctors once told his family that he was destined for a life of misery.
Oscar was born with a cleft lip and palate, but he looks like any other student on campus. Wearing blue jeans and a green sweater with bold text reading “nothing is perfect” on the front, he greets his friends on the way to the gym. There, he’ll lift weights for about an hour before his English class begins.
In his sixth semester, he is practically fluent in English. He dreams of travelling and studying abroad – maybe in the U.S. He has big plans of a Ph.D. exam and possibly becoming a university professor – that is unless he’ll be working for Operation Smile – or a translator; he wants to learn French as well.
The possibilities seem endless for Oscar – he has so many plans and so much hope for a bright future.
But it hasn’t always been this way.
His mother, Maria, was only 17 years old when Oscar was born. Her doctors never told her about Oscar’s condition, even after she received ultrasounds. The day he was born, the maternity ward doctors immediately took him away from her and started whispering to each other.
One doctor asked her, “What kind of life do you want to live?” He told her that he had something serious to tell her that she “just had to accept.” Her child was born with a cleft lip and a cleft palate.
“I started to cry and didn’t want to accept it. I prayed to God that this was just a nightmare and that I would wake up and it wouldn’t have happened,” says Maria, her eyes tearing up by the memory. “But the next day when I woke up again, the doctors were all there, the child’s aunts were there, crying. The father was also crying – everybody was crying – and honestly, at that moment, I didn’t want to accept him as my child.”
Now, she sits with her handsome son in their living room, looking through photo albums. He has heard this story before, but it’s still painful, especially as he sees his mother become upset.
“My sister was 15 when he was born. But she was the only one who didn’t think this was so terrible. She thought the baby looked cute, so she convinced me to see him again, to have a look at him and cuddle with him. And we did,” Maria says. “And of course then, when I held him in my arms, everything was different. That was the day when, to me, he was born.”
It has been a long journey for Maria and Oscar to receive the care that he needed.
He first received surgery at a state-owned hospital in the city, but they were not cleft specialists and the stitches broke open the next day. The following time he was on the list for surgery, he fell ill with the flu and the procedure had to be cancelled.
It was then that she first heard about Operation Smile and learned that the medical non-profit would soon be conducting a surgical mission. When they first entered the doors of the hospital where Operation Smile was working, everything changed.
Operation Smile Colombia was founded in 1994 by Carlos Arturo Vargas. He and his wife lost a son, only 15 months old, in a car accident and wanted to do something to honour him – something that would benefit children in need.
“The need to help treat this pathology is enormous in this country,” Carlos says. “Before we started, there was practically nothing here, and it was tragic to see the lack of knowledge the parents had and how they only knew of the myths about cleft, how they hid their children from society.”
Starting by bringing in international teams of volunteer doctors and nurses for around 10 days to operate on about 100 children and then leaving, Carlos felt the need to build something lasting after a few years. Colombia’s lack of follow-up and ongoing cleft care was profound, so they started to work with local specialists to be able to offer the children orthodontic care, psychology, speech therapy and other treatments.
“We realised it wasn’t the surgical procedure that was the only solution. So we started to look for a way to treat both the child and the parents, who are so important to get a successful rehabilitation,” Carlos says. “We created rehabilitation centres where we could take care of pregnant mothers, using ultrasounds to detect (cleft conditions), and to prepare them for what would come, and then later with different courses such as the introduction course, where they meet other parents and children with cleft and can see that they are not alone.”
Operation Smile Colombia operates two care centres in Bogotá and Duitama – year-round clinics that offer comprehensive, free cleft care to those who need it.
The foundation also offers cleft care services at several partner hospitals across the country, where they can connect with patients who live in remote areas. These locations not only offer surgeries, but also the same level of care as the care centres.
“So far, we have performed more than 23,000 surgical procedures here in Colombia, and we have around 1,500 patients coming to our care centres (and locations) for comprehensive care every year,” says Martha Tristancho, the executive director of Operation Smile Colombia. “We treat mostly people from the regions where we have our (locations), but through internet, we have grown a lot in numbers of patients coming from other regions, including very remote areas.”
She explains why she thinks the centres and locations are so successful: It’s the “magic” created by the commitment volunteers and staff show towards their patients and their families. By providing patients with the surgeries they need, as well as specialty care that enriches their lives and helps them become fully integrated in society, volunteers and staff make them feel like a part of the Operation Smile family.
Olga Sarmientos is a speech therapist at the centre in Bogotá who used to see Oscar when he was a patient there. She is proud of him and his achievements.
“To know that Oscar now is studying languages at the university, to see him so satisfied and happy with himself, makes me extremely happy. He is such a good example of the opportunities all our patients have if we can work with them,” Olga said. “We can support the family and show them that everything is possible and that the cleft, that once was a very traumatic experience, can become just a memory.”
It’s clear that Oscar’s and Operation Smile Colombia’s commitment to the development of his speech have shaped his ambitions.
In 2019, Oscar achieved one of his many dreams by graduating from Universidad El Bosque with a bachelor’s degree in bilingual education. He currently works at an English-language customer service call centre for a major United States-based retail company, where the culmination of his years of speech therapy is realised daily. Oscar aspires to one day move to the U.S. and teach English as a second language to children who are native Spanish speakers.
“Operation Smile has meant very much to me. They gave me the tools and motivation to improve my life, to live a life with higher quality,” Oscar says. “Without exaggerating, I have Operation Smile to thank for almost everything in my life. They were there by my side, all the time, through the treatment and into my social integration.”