Walk alongside Shijun

Sad child with a cleft lip and palate
Thirteen-year-old Shijun, before surgery. Photo: Zute Lightfoot.

Our promise of improving health and dignity during the COVID-19 pandemic endures. We’re helping frontline health workers stay safe, nourished and empowered to better serve their patients by providing life-saving supplies and equipment, as well as remote training to bolster their response. We’re also providing nutritional assistance, hygiene kits and virtual health services to support people and their health needs so they can thrive. If you can, when you can, help us keep our promise to care for children and create hope for tomorrow.

As a fifth grader, the one thing Shijun wanted most was to study his favourite subjects of literature and maths.

But being born with a cleft lip and palate in the Guangdong Province of China, he struggled to enjoy his time at school with the bullying he faced on a regular basis.

Although the harassment he received made him angry, Shijun chose to walk away instead of fighting with those who treated him badly.

It pained Shijun’s parents to witness their son endure the hurtful comments and isolation. But there was something that always gave them hope: They knew surgery to repair Shijun’s cleft condition was possible.

Paidong, Shijun’s dad, had a cousin who received surgery to repair his cleft condition and now lives a happier life.

This knowledge of a solution motivated Paidong to search tirelessly for the care his son needed.

But for years, Paidong was left disappointed after each attempt: The cost of surgery was beyond his means and impossible for his family to pay despite his yearly salary as a construction worker.

During one of his attempts, Paidong travelled to Guiyang to see a doctor who he hoped could help. The transportation to the city cost approximately 10% of Paidong’s annual income. And even after the immense cost, Shijun couldn’t receive surgery, and the family once again returned home with no results.

Operation Smile believes that parents should never have to choose between keeping a roof over their family’s head or the care that their child needs to stay healthy.

Boy with cleft walking hand in hand with his father
Shijun and his dad, Paidong, walk side by side to the hospital. Photo: Zute Lightfoot.

This cycle of frustration and heartbreak came to an end when Shijun’s uncle discovered new information while visiting a friend at a local hospital in Bijie City.

After mentioning to the nurse that his nephew had a cleft lip, they immediately told him about Operation Smile China.

Learning that the organisation had a surgical programme scheduled in Dafang in the coming weeks, Shijun’s uncle rushed home to tell his family the exciting news.

Just like every other attempt at getting his son surgery, Paidong felt both hopeful and anxious in the weeks leading up to the Operation Smile China surgical programme. But he was filled with relief knowing that his family wouldn’t be responsible for the cost of transportation to the mission site and the surgical care Shijun would hopefully receive.

Soon, it was time for Shijun and his uncle to travel to the mission. Paidong made plans to return to Dafang County to meet them at the mission site – there was no way he would miss this opportunity.

boy with his father and uncle
Paidong, left, registers Shijun for screening during a 2016 Operation Smile China surgical mission in Dafang. Photo: Zute Lightfoot.

After a comprehensive health evaluation, Shijun was cleared for surgery by our volunteer medical team and scheduled for his operation to repair his cleft lip.

When it comes to our work of delivering exceptional cleft care to people around the world, the safety of our patients has been, and will always be, our greatest priority.

Throughout the screening process, medical volunteers take patients’ blood pressure, temperature and other vitals to ensure that there are no underlying health concerns that would risk the patient’s safety during surgery.

boy being escorted by medical team for cleft surgery
Shijun bravely walks into the operating room with anaesthesiologist Dr. Daniel Kim of Brazil. Photo: Zute Lightfoot.
surgery team performing cleft surgery
Volunteer plastic surgeon Dr. Shu Maoguo of China, centre, and plastic surgeon observer Dr. Brad Gandolfi of the U.S., left, perform surgery on 13-year-old Shijun. Photo: Zute Lightfoot.

On the morning of his scheduled surgery, Shijun was excited and couldn’t wait to see his new smile for the first time. He began to think of everything he wanted to do after surgery including play basketball with his friends without fear of being teased.

When he looked in the mirror and saw his smile for the first time, he said, “Thank you, thank you I feel good.”

boy looking at himself in a mirror after cleft surgery
Shijun stares at his new smile in the mirror the morning after his cleft surgery. Photo: Zute Lightfoot.

A few days following his surgery, Shijun returned to his grandparents’ home where family and neighbours were thrilled to see how much of a difference one surgery can make.

There were weeks filled with happiness among his family and friends. But a tragic accident halted all celebrations when Shijun fell and broke his leg, delaying his cleft palate surgery.

Paidong shared with us that he works hard to earn enough money to pay for the surgeries Shijun needs to recover from the compound fracture.

But he’s grateful to Operation Smile China and its devoted community of volunteers who took care of his son. Paidong knows that when it’s time, he will not have the financial burden of also paying for Shijun’s cleft palate surgery.

Looking at Shijun today, it’s difficult to tell that he once had a cleft lip.

Operation Smile is committed to providing patients with health that lasts – we look forward to providing Shijun with the additional surgery he needs for his cleft palate and any other essential treatments he needs to live a happier and healthier life.

Help us to continue keeping our promise to patients like Shijun amid the Covid-19 pandemic. Your support today means we can help patients through these uncertain times and provide them with the care and surgery they deserve when it’s safe to resume our work.

boy smiling after cleft surgery
Shijun smiles wide one year after surgery. Photo: Zute Lightfoot.