May 17, 2013
Jill Gora, M.D., Volunteer Pediatrician
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I recently had the opportunity to travel to Nador, Morocco, on my 13th medical mission with Operation Smile. Over a 10-day period, our international team of volunteers screened 245 children and performed free reconstructive surgery for 152 patients suffering with cleft lip and cleft palate.
I have learned that every patient on every medical mission has a story. But there is one story from Nador that stands out above all for me – and that is the story of Yeghniha.
Yeghniha was a beautiful seven-month-old girl, with cocoa-colored skin and a wide cleft lip and cleft palate. Her father, Mohamed, was a vibrant and friendly man. He entered the Pediatrics screening room with a bright smile and a noticeable limp, cradling his daughter in his arms. They took a seat next to my desk, and Yeghniha reached out to touch the stethoscope around my neck with her tiny hand. An elastic cord strung with brightly colored beads was wrapped many times around her thin wrist. As I started gathering her medical history, a sad picture that belied Mohamed’s smile began to emerge.
Mohamed and his daughter were not Moroccan at all – they were from the country Mauritania, and had traveled more than 12 hours to arrive in Nador for screening – longer than my trip from New Jersey. Mohamed and his wife were goat farmers, raising Yeghniha and her five year-old brother on their family farm. The work was difficult ever since Mohamed’s leg had been badly injured while he served in the army, leaving him permanently disabled. When Yeghniha was born with a cleft lip and palate, her parents were heartbroken, but were determined to love her and help her any way they could. But when Yeghniha was just two months old, her mother fell ill with “fever” (presumably malaria) and died. Suddenly, Mohamed was left to raise two children on his own, the youngest struggling to thrive.
A local senator in Mauritania heard of their plight and offered to help. He started by searching the internet for “cleft lip and palate” and came across the website for Operation Smile. He sent an email to the organization, and they responded with detailed information of the upcoming mission in Nador. This was the closest upcoming mission in Northern Africa. But a plane ticket from Mauritania to Rabat, followed by a 10-hour train ride from Rabat to Nador, was beyond Mohamed’s means. He made the difficult decision to sell his car in order to purchase their tickets. He knew this might be his only chance to help his daughter.
So father and daughter set out on their long journey to our medical mission site. Yeghniha completed the screening process, and despite being small for her age, was found to be in good health. I remember how emotional Mohamed became when he learned that Yeghniha was selected to receive surgery. He collapsed in the arms of the other parents, his face streaked with tears of joy. Several days later, we shared in his joy when Yeghniha emerged from the recovery room, her beautiful little face made whole again.
I remember thinking how much she resembled her father after her surgery.
The next day, on my rounds through the post-op ward, I stopped at Yeghniha’s bedside. She was recovering well, a bit swollen but still able to smile, happily sucking milk from her bottle. Mohamed was beaming, and insisted that I join him for a cup of Mauritanian tea. We sat together at the bedside, sharing steaming cups of mint tea poured from a silver pot he had brought with him from home.
In that moment, I realized how lucky I was to be in Mohamed’s presence. Here was a man who lost everything, and risked everything for the sake of his child, and still managed to nourish me with a cup of hot tea. Then he did something I will never forget. He gently unwound the beaded bracelet from Yeghniha’s wrist, and placed it on my own. He thanked me for the gift of our care. And I thanked him for what he taught me about life.
Tags: From the Field, Our Blog, Europe, Middle East and Africa, Morocco