April 11, 2014
Ryan Wallace , Operation Smile staff
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As I walked down the open hallway of the hospital in Chinandega, Nicaragua, towards the hundreds of patients that gathered during the second day of screening, I found myself in awe of this place. This not of the “state of the art” hospital that we have become so accustomed to in the U.S. this is something unlike anything I’ve seen before.
The energy of this place is striking – the families, the volunteers and the patients that exude a courage that was both unique and uniform.
I was in awe of the mother who had left an abusive husband and father to venture three days to bring her daughter to our medical mission. In awe of the 3-year-old I had sat with the day before, who happily attempted to emulate me blowing bubbles – unknowing that the recurring attempts were futile because of the gaping hole in his lip. In awe of the pure beauty of each and every person I met.
There are countless experiences that I will always remember and hold close to my heart, but one patient’s journey in particular I will always treasure. When I first met 13-month-old Kristel, I was immediately captivated. I found myself entranced – lost in the deep, dark eyes that conquered her face. Her long black lashes gracefully attempted to hold steady as she searched the room infinitely. Her demeanor so energetic and innocent. Her smile so genuine and beautiful, even scarred by a cleft that took up most of her upper lip.
Through a translator, I spoke with Kristel’s mother, who actively engaged in conversation. The young mother – no older than 25 – told me that she had feared that something was wrong during her pregnancy with Kristel, but did not have access to the procedures to find out for sure. When she first held her baby and saw her upper lip incomplete, she felt helpless – “Why was my baby born like this?”
She had never seen nor heard of a child with a cleft lip until now and anxiously waited to learn her baby’s fate. When doctors told her that Kristel’s lip could be repaired, her anxiety shifted – “How can I afford surgery? Is there even a surgeon nearby who could help my baby?”
Now, a year later, and at the last station of our screening process – where families are told whether the child is healthy enough to receive surgery – Kristel’s mother held her tiny baby close and tearfully explained that she just wanted her child to be fixed.
Kristel’s mother spoke of the difficulties her daughter had experienced over the past year because of her cleft. She told us that feeding had been extremely difficult – that she knew Kristel was dangerously close to being underweight, but there was little she could do. The child’s cleft lip wouldn’t allow Kristel to feed properly – food and milk ran out of her mouth. As Kristel’s mother spoke, I could see the desperation in her eyes, in her tone.
In a moment of relief, the nurses sat the young mother and child down and explained that the tiny young girl was healthy and a high-priority – she would receive surgery. Kristel’s mother smiled – the pure joy, energy and emotion radiated throughout the room. Inside, I wept.
Two days later I sat with Kristel and her mother in a small dimly lit room where we anxiously waited for the little girl to be called for her surgery. Kristel lay gracefully in her mother’s arm, her eyes fixing to anything that moved. She was indifferent, innocently unaware that she was waiting for a surgery that would transform her life forever. But her mother knew.
Nearly an hour passed while we waited, then, Kristel was summoned for surgery. Her mother carefully passed the tiny child to the waiting anesthesiologist, who disappeared behind the closing door of the waiting area with Kristel wrapped in his arms.
While walking Kristel’s mother to the waiting room, I noticed a difference in her. She was noticeably shy, yet excited. Happy, yet fearful. Anxious, but calm. She loved Kristel so much – she knew that this was a huge opportunity, but worried that something could go wrong.
About an hour later, I was told to get Kristel’s mother from the waiting room – Kristel’s surgery was complete. I walked the anxious mother to the post-operative room, where her sleeping baby lay.
She slowly kneeled next to her daughter and brushed the hair out of the tiny child’s face – tearfully examining a complete lip where a hole used to be. She sat speechless – struggling to grasp the reality of Kristel’s new smile. In her silence she expressed a sincerity and gratitude that needed no translation.
Tags: Our Blog, From the Field, Patient Stories, Latin America & Carribean, Nicaragua