Overcoming adversity to receive cleft care

Arlyn was born with a cleft lip in the Philippines. Her mother Dominga blamed herself for her daughter’s condition as she’d taken a hard fall during pregnancy.

Three years later, Dominga thought she’d finally found cleft care for her daughter.

She took her fragile little Arlyn on a 12-hour bus trip to Manila, where cleft surgeries were being performed. But when Arlyn was going through the pre-op assessments, they discovered a fever. It was too significant to overlook and they turned her away.

12 hours home on the bus was a good place to cry.

Every day Arlyn became more aware that she was different. “Mama, why is my lip open?” But Dominga could only wonder if her fall was the reason. Her answer was, ‘When someone helps us, we will go to get an operation on you.”

These questions about the causes of cleft are echoed by families we treat around the world. There are many risk factors that can increase the likelihood of a cleft condition. While some causes are still unknown, genetics and family history, pre-existing medical conditions, poor nutrition and exposure to harmful environmental substances can affect the healthy development of a baby.

Through our International Family Study, Operation Smile is conducting research into the causes of cleft conditions.

Sad girl with a cleft lip
Arlyn before cleft surgery

One of the many reasons for conducting this research is to help remove the social stigma which surrounds cleft conditions in many of the countries where we work, including the Philippines where Arlyn lives.

In her neighbourhood the children called her “gusing”, the cleft monster. They taunted her with jeers of, “Why is her lip so open?” Arlyn just cried.

The family tried to protect her. Her brothers would scoop her up and carry her away from the taunts.

Eight months after travelling to Manila, the family learned of an upcoming Operation Smile medical mission. Dominga and Arlyn, once again made the journey by bus. At least this time, it was only three hours. But it was a journey of renewed hope.

Dominga was delighted when she was told that Arlyn had been cleared for surgery after a comprehensive medical evaluation.

“She will be very happy,” the relieved mother breathes.

“Arlyn will be pretty. And when she grows up, she will see a picture of herself as a child. She will compare her picture and say, ‘Mama, when I was a child my lip was open, but now I am pretty.”

Girl with a repaired cleft lip.
Arlyn with a repaired cleft lip
Smiling girl with a repaired cleft lip being held by her mother
Arlyn smiling with her mother, Dominga.

Our promise of improving health and dignity during the COVID-19 pandemic endures. Once again, we’re providing surgery and in-person care while taking stringent measures to keep our patients, their families and our volunteers safe. Hope is on the horizon. And we remain focused on what cleft care makes possible for children, helping them to better breathe, eat, speak and live with confidence.

Help us provide cleft care to children like Arlyn around the world.

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