Thriving thanks to timely surgery

Olga and her daughter, Lungile, before surgery. Photo: Zute Lightfoot.
Olga and her daughter, Lungile, before surgery. Photo: Zute Lightfoot.

When Olga gave birth to her daughter, Lungile, her joy lasted only for a fleeting moment before she was overwhelmed with shock.

Lungile was born with a cleft lip, a condition that Olga had never seen before.

Distraught and heartbroken, Olga and members of her family struggled to understand why Lungile was born with a cleft lip*. They also struggled with the uncertainty of whether or not she would be able to receive treatment.

“I was scared the first time I saw her,” said Lydia, Lungile’s grandmother. “I thought there would be no one to help her.”

But as the family’s initial feelings of shock faded, their unconditional love for Lungile only grew.

Olga said that while the doctors and nurses at the hospital assured her that surgery to repair Lungile’s lip was possible, they also explained that the waiting list was very long and that it may take years before she could receive an operation.

Photo: Zute Lightfoot.

It’s critical that babies born with cleft conditions receive surgery as soon as they are old enough and healthy enough to undergo anaesthesia. The longer Lungile’s wait for surgery, the longer her condition could put her health at risk. Her speech and dental development could become impaired. She could suffer from emotional hardships, such as bullying and social isolation, throughout those precious, formative years.

Soon after receiving this discouraging news, Olga met Dr. Vanessa Soares, an Operation Smile South Africa medical volunteer and dentist at the same hospital where Lungile was born. Vanessa told Olga that Operation Smile provides free surgeries for children born with cleft conditions, like Lungile, and provided her with the organisation’s phone number.

Immediately, Olga called Operation Smile South Africa and learned that a medical mission would be coming to the family’s home town of Mbombela just after Lungile’s first birthday – within the ideal time frame for cleft surgery.

Fortunately for Lungile, her cleft lip did not prevent her from feeding properly as it does for so many babies born with cleft conditions. Difficulty in feeding can lead to life-threatening malnutrition which also prevents potential patients from being healthy enough to undergo anaesthesia. To combat this barrier to surgical care, Operation Smile has established nutrition programmes in places where malnutrition is prevalent, such as Madagascar, Ghana and Malawi, to help children gain weight and become healthy enough for surgery.

When the medical mission arrived to Mbombela, Olga was surprised to see so many children with cleft conditions. The Operation Smile medical team conducted comprehensive health evaluations to determine which patients were healthy enough to receive surgery. Olga was elated to learn that Lungile was among those selected to get an operation during the medical mission.

Naturally, Olga was anxious as her daughter was wheeled into the operating room. In less than an hour, she was reunited with Lungile in the recovery room as she woke from anaesthesia.

She couldn’t believe her eyes when she saw her daughter for the first time after surgery.

Olga and Lungile, after Lungile's cleft lip surgery. Photo: Zute Lightfoot.

Olga’s anxiety was replaced by joy and gratitude as she reflected on the compassion of the Operation Smile medical team and Vanessa.

“What she has done for me –” Olga said of Vanessa, pausing as her emotions welled up. “I love her.”

A year after her surgery, 2-year-old Lungile is thriving.

“Lungile loves to dance hip hop, listen to Rihanna and play her brothers’ musical instruments,” said Olga, who has become an advocate for Operation Smile South Africa in her community.

“I was out shopping with Lungile, and I met a lady who burst into tears because her daughter also had a cleft lip, and so I told her she would be OK,” said Olga, who accompanied the mother and her child to the next Operation Smile medical mission to Mbombela. “The baby, Ntando, and Lungile have become great friends.

“I will tell people in my community who have children born with cleft lip that their children can be fixed and they will look nice.”

Photo: Zute Lightfoot.

* Editor’s Note: While it’s difficult to determine the exact cause of an individual’s cleft condition, research from Operation Smile’s International Family Study shows that cleft conditions can be caused by genetics, environmental factors or a combination of both.