Photo: Laura Gonzalez.
Victoria gave birth to her daughter, Constance, in a small health clinic located in her neighbourhood.
She’d never seen anyone with a cleft condition before and didn’t know how the condition would impact her daughter’s future. So, when doctors referred Victoria to a large hospital several hours away from her home, she didn’t hesitate to make the journey.
After she arrived at the hospital, Victoria saw a flyer promoting an upcoming Operation Smile Ghana medical mission with a phone number to contact patient coordinator Clement Ofosuhemeng.
Talking to Clement reassured Victoria that the organisation was the solution for which she’d been hoping to find.
“I was not worried about coming to Operation Smile,” Victoria said. “Clement answered all my questions and was very accessible. I was certain what you’re doing here is legitimate.”
While Victoria had absolute confidence in the volunteer medical team, her nervousness was evident on the morning of Constance’s surgery.
But when the time came for Constance to enter the operating room, Victoria bravely handed her daughter to the volunteer surgeon and did not shed a tear.
After an hour of waiting anxiously, Victoria reunited with Constance and held her daughter lovingly in her lap.
Looking at Constance’s new smile for the first time, Victoria simply said, “I’m so happy. She’s very beautiful now.”
Kelvin with his adoptive mother, Felicia. Photo: Laura Gonzalez.
“My younger sister said she didn’t want a baby with a cleft, so she just ran away,” Felicia said.
After watching her sister abandon Kelvin, Felicia decided to adopt her nephew. She’s been raising him as her own son ever since.
“There was no one to take care of him, and I couldn’t leave him to die,” she said.
Felicia had never seen anyone with a cleft condition before. And although she didn’t know if a solution was out there, Felicia refused to walk away like her sister did.
While Felicia loves Kelvin, her life became very difficult after she made the decision to adopt him. She used to make a living as a trader, selling containers of water in the market.
“Now that I have this baby, I can no longer go to the market. I have to strap him to my back, and as soon as people see what he looks like, they don’t want to buy anything from me anymore. I have to beg people for money so I can feed him,” Felicia said.
Felicia felt relief and happiness when she learned that Operation Smile Ghana provides safe surgical care for patients like Kelvin.
But after performing a comprehensive health evaluation, medical volunteers determined that Kelvin couldn’t be scheduled for surgery because he exhibited signs of malnourishment in addition to having contracted a cold.
“I don’t like to take him outside because when I do, he gets sick. He’s always sick,” Felicia said. “I don’t have money, so when I run out of food for Kelvin, I have to go out and ask people for it. I need someone to help me take care of him.”
Through increasing education and promoting health, Operation Smile Ghana aims to reduce malnutrition and illness as barriers preventing children from receiving safe surgery.
Before Felicia and Kelvin left the patient shelter to return home, volunteer dietitian Dede Kwadjo, who runs the nutrition programme for Operation Smile Ghana, evaluated Kelvin and gave Felicia helpful advice about the types of food that Kelvin needs to eat in order for him to become healthy enough for safe surgery.
“We train our mothers to use what they have to create nutritious food for their children. We ask what they have available: fish, beans, banana. Then, we work with them to create a practical solution, teaching them how to help their child,” Dede said.
“I will feed him well so he can gain weight and grow stronger,” Felicia said.
While she waits for the next medical mission, Felicia said that she hopes to spread the word about the work that Operation Smile Ghana is accomplishing in the country.
“If I see someone else with a cleft, I will advise them and encourage them and ensure them that they should come and be seen by the doctors at Operation Smile.”
Felicia hasn’t heard from her sister since she left Kelvin shortly after his birth. She has no idea where she is. But after learning that Kelvin couldn’t receive surgery yet, Felicia refused to give up hope.
“If he can get the surgery, I believe it will bring my family back together again.”
Mariam with her mother, Ramatu. Photo: Laura Gonzalez.
Mariam was born with a bilateral cleft lip. But unlike many mothers, her mom, Ramatu, knew exactly what lied ahead for her daughter.
She herself was born with a cleft condition.
When she was a baby, Ramatu received surgery from a teaching hospital to repair her cleft lip.
“I’m happy that I got the surgery when I was little,” Ramatu said.
Ramatu is reserved and doesn’t often make eye contact with strangers. She didn’t share what her life had been like growing up or what she had been through, but her strength and dignity are undeniable.
“When I saw my daughter was also born with a cleft, I said to myself, ‘God gave me this child for a reason. I know how to take care of her.’”
Ramatu began searching for a solution a few months after Mariam was born, hoping that her daughter would receive the same surgical care that she received many years ago.
Her hopes were realised once she heard about Operation Smile Ghana.
After seeing posters around town for the organisation’s upcoming medical mission in Ho and contacting patient coordinators, Ramatu was relieved to learn that her daughter’s cleft lip could be healed for free.
“I would not have been able to afford to pay for surgery for Mariam,” Ramatu said. “When Mariam was selected for surgery, I was very happy.”
Photo: Laura Gonzalez.
At just 9 years old, Jacob often missed school so that he could work to help take care of his family.
He lived with his parents and his 12 brothers and sisters in their family home in Takoradi, Ghana. But despite their best efforts, Jacob’s mom and dad weren’t able to make enough money from their work as a trader and a farmer to send his other siblings to good schools.
That’s when Bernard, a friend of the family, decided to step in.
“I realised Jacob was an exceptional boy,” said Bernard, who would often visit Jacob’s father in their village. “He’s very good in school, so I offered the opportunity to come live with me so I could make sure he was in school regularly.”
Hoping that their son would be given opportunities to live the life that they knew he deserved, Jacob’s parents agreed for Bernard to take care of Jacob.
Today, Jacob has become a true member of the family, joining Bernard’s two young children – a 3-year-old boy and a 2-year-old girl – who Bernard is raising with his wife.
“There’s no separation between Jacob and my real children. There’s no way you would know. My own children know Jacob is like my first son, since he’s the oldest,” Bernard said.
Bernard owns a farm and works in accounting, but he makes sacrifices so that Jacob and his own children can receive a good education and pursue their dreams. Jacob enjoys learning in school and has strong ambitions about his plans for the future.
“My favourite subject is information communication technology,” Jacob said. “I want to do that work when I grow up.”
When Bernard speaks about Jacob, the pride that he feels is evident.
“He’s always in the top five students in his class.”
Jacob also plays football and dances when he’s not in school.
“He’s part of his primary school team. He’s very good, he’s talented. He travels to play in tournaments,” Bernard said. “But he has a lot of challenges, challenges because of teasing about his mouth.”
Once Bernard learned about the free, safe surgeries that Operation Smile Ghana provides, his hope for Jacob’s future continued to grow stronger. And just six months after deciding to raise him as his own son, Bernard travelled with Jacob to the medical mission in Ho.
There, Jacob passed his comprehensive health evaluation and received his life-changing surgery to repair his cleft lip.
“There are some kids around the school that used to tease him. This surgery will improve his confidence level. It will shoot up,” Bernard said. “I really wish to support him and give him an education so he can achieve his aims – so he can climb higher.”
Photo: Nana Kissi.
“When I was a baby, my parents knew surgery was possible, but they were scared to take me to the hospital,” Esi said.
Esi’s parents refused to take her to a hospital because they were terrified that their daughter would die. Even as Esi grew older, both she and her parents remained afraid.
Because of that fear, Esi lived with an unrepaired cleft lip for 60 years.
Although Esi grew up with a cleft, she experienced incredible happiness throughout her life. She’s married and has seven children who she loves – and who love her – unconditionally.
But even with those moments of immense joy and love, Esi spent her entire life being embarrassed of her smile.
After seeing an Operation Smile Ghana poster in their hometown, Esi’s older brother told her about the upcoming medical mission in Ho, Ghana, where people could receive care for their cleft conditions. Hearing the news that free surgery was possible changed everything for Esi.
No longer holding on to the fear she once felt, Esi didn’t hesitate to make the journey to the mission site.
Operation Smile believes that everyone deserves access to safe surgical care, no matter where they live or how old they are. After receiving her comprehensive health evaluation from medical volunteers, Esi was added to the surgical schedule.
“I’m so happy I was lucky enough to get selected,” Esi said. “I’m not scared. I’m only waiting for the day of my surgery to come.”
After six decades, that day finally arrived.
Thinking of how she would feel in the moments after receiving her life-changing surgery, Esi said, “I’ll be dancing around. You’ll think I’m a young girl again.”
Esi was one of the first patients to undergo surgery. And in less than an hour, she became one of the first people at the mission to feel the joy of a new smile.