Seven-month-old Yi Miang and his mom, Lu Gong’e, during Operation Smile China’s 2016 medical mission to Lincang. Photo: Zute Lightfoot.
No prenatal check-up or ultrasound Lu Gong’e received indicated that the lives of her and her husband, Tian Shun, would soon change forever.
With healthy 6-year-old twins at home, Lu Gong’e didn’t anticipate that her pregnancy would be any different with her son, Yi Miang.
But on the day that Lu Gong’e and Tian Shun believed would be one of the happiest of their lives, the couple was confronted with heartbreak and shock.
Yi Miang was born with a cleft lip and palate.
Doctors at the hospital didn’t explain the cause of Yi Miang’s cleft. They simply said that surgery was possible but not at that hospital.
In that moment, Lu Gong’e’s mind filled with seemingly unanswerable questions and thoughts of uncertainty as she held her baby boy in her arms.
“How is this possible?”
Photo: Zute Lightfoot.
Looking at their son, Tian Shun and Lu Gong’e couldn’t understand how one child could be born with a cleft condition while their twin girls were born perfectly healthy.
After the family arrived back home, some members of their community blamed them, believing that they had done something to cause Yi Miang’s cleft clip. Lu Gong’e and Tian Shun faced stigmatisation and judgement from those who lacked proper knowledge on the causes of cleft conditions, which can be the result of environmental or hereditary factors.
Filled with love for Yi Miang, Lu Gong’e didn’t pay mind to the teasing or harmful comments.
Instead, Tian Shun and Lu Gong’e immediately sought out other hospitals in the area, tirelessly looking for a specialist with the skills and training to help Yi Miang. But even after months of searching, they remained without a solution.
Then one day, a representative from Operation Smile China visited their village and shared information that changed everything.
Tian Shun and Lu Gong’e learned that the organisation specialises in cleft lip and cleft palate repairs. They were also informed that an upcoming medical mission was taking place in Lincang, where Yi Miang could receive safe surgery at no cost to them.
Finally, the solution they’d searched for since Yi Miang’s birth was in sight.
“When I heard there was a mission, I was very excited,” Lu Gong’e said. “I travelled a whole day to the hospital, and my heart is full of happiness.”
Lu Gong’e and 7-month-old Yi Miang travelled 20 hours by bus to reach Lincang. While she was aware that cleft conditions existed, what Lu Gong’e saw upon arrival shocked her.
Hundreds of families with children affected by cleft conditions had travelled to the mission site just as her and Yi Miang had. Until then, she had no idea that one in 500-750 babies are born with cleft conditions.
Patient safety is at the forefront of every Operation Smile mission. To ensure that Yi Miang was healthy enough to undergo surgery, medical volunteers performed a comprehensive health evaluation, checking his blood pressure and other vitals before clearing him for surgery.
Volunteer pediatrician Dr. Elena Belonogova from Russia examines Yi Miang during screening day. Photo: Zute Lightfoot.
Lu Gong’e was thrilled when Operation Smile China volunteers placed Yi Miang on the surgical schedule. But at the same time, envisioning her son receiving surgery on his cleft lip scared her.
When Yi Miang entered the operating room, Lu Gong’e patiently sat in the waiting room, clutching his small jacket with tears falling down her cheeks.
A short time later, her worry turned into tears of happiness when Lu Gong’e reunited with Yi Miang and saw his beautiful new smile.
Photo: Zute Lightfoot.
Tian Shun and Lu Gong’e were overcome with relief at their son’s transformation. Sitting by Yi Miang’s side as he rested after surgery, they knew that they would return to a future mission so Operation Smile China could repair their son’s cleft palate.
Before leaving the mission, Lu Gong’e and members of the volunteer medical team shared a beautiful moment when she told them that she couldn’t wait to show Yi Miang all of the pictures she’d taken during the mission. She wanted her son to see the faces of all the people who helped give him a brighter future.
Five months later, after traveling 10 hours to the 2017 medical mission in Dafang, Tian Shun, Lu Gong’e and Yi Miang reunited with the Operation Smile China team.
People at the mission described Yi Miang as a happy, outgoing 1-year-old who loves to laugh. Medical volunteers were delighted to announce that he was cleared to receive palate surgery.
“Before the first surgery, I was very nervous,” Lu Gong’e said. “But the surgery was so successful. I’m very confident about this surgery, and my heart is calm.”
Photo: Zute Lightfoot.
As Lu Gong’e and Tian Shun waited for Operation Smile China’s medical team to perform surgery on Yi Miang’s cleft palate, they wrote a letter thanking the doctors, nurses and volunteers who’d helped change their lives.
The letter has been translated from Mandarin below:
“First of all, I would like to convey my appreciation to this mission. And I want to thank all of the staff and volunteers from this mission.
The welcome that everyone showed to my child before surgery really touched me, and I wish to show my appreciation to every single one of you for the concern and care you gave to my child.
Everyone here smiles so brightly. A smile can really relax people, and these smiles make me feel that there is nothing to worry about and to be calm and stress free.
Now, I’m outside of the operating room waiting for a perfect outcome.
My thoughts are that I wish that my baby will grow up to be a person like you and be able to convey your love to more people and society in general.
When Yi Miang grows up, I’ll tell him everything that happened at the mission. I’ll show him photos from the mission so that he will know what he received today.
This is not an easy task as so many people contributed to his health. I want him to be thankful to every single one of you.”
One-year-old Yi Miang poses for a photo with his parents, Lu Gong’e and Tian Shun, during Operation Smile China’s 2017 medical mission in Dafang. Photo: Zute Lightfoot.