Operation Smile is a charity organization for children – donate non profit
Operation Smile is a charity organization for children – donate non profit

March 26, 2014

Learning to Speak Again

Jennifer Mings , U-Voice Student Volunteer

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Matias Gonzales has developed his own sort of sign language. At 16-years-old, the teenager refuses to speak because his cleft palate causes speech difficulties – he’d rather not even try.

But Matias wasn’t always this way. Shortly after his birth, his parents took him to a nearby hospital to have his cleft palate repaired. Over the years, however, his palate re-opened, making talking a chore for young boy.

At 6 years old, his parents brought him to the Operation Smile medical mission in Asunción to receive surgery. Unfortunately, Matias was turned away at that mission due to such high volume. His parents were told to come back to the next medical mission in six months where he could be reevaluated for surgery. But his parents never returned with him. They instead went to different clinics around Asunción and all gave them the same answer – “No, this surgery would be too dangerous.” Accepting that, Matias and his parents didn’t revisit the Operation Smile medical mission site for 10 more years.

But recent alarming news sent Matias and his parents to Operation Smile again this week. His pediatrician said that if Matias didn’t receive surgery for his cleft palate, he would be in danger of going partially or fully deaf. This time, a decade later, Matias was selected for surgery by the Operation Smile team.

Matias has experienced many other difficulties in addition to his cleft palate – he has struggled with developing fine motor skills and was born with Kabuki syndrome, a genetic disorder characterized by developmental delays and physical abnormalities. But his condition didn’t seem to bother him terribly when it came time for surgery. The morning of his surgery he kept all of the volunteers entertained by smiling and laughing, focusing his interest on anything that was the color yellow. Matias colored all of coloring book sheets yellow, wore a yellow necklace, and found a yellow headband to wear. According to his parents, he started this fascination with yellow because of a weekly television program that featured a competition between a yellow team and a red team — he always rooted for the yellow team.

In talking to his mother, Marielle, I learned that his parents have been taking him to a speech therapist regularly. She has told them that he is able to talk, but has gotten into the routine of using his own sign language system because he is too uncomfortable speaking. Marielle hopes that with her son’s cleft palate surgery, he will be able to regain some ability and confidence to speak. She said her family has always treated Matias normally despite his Kabuki’s syndrome, and she hopes that this surgery will make him feel even more normal amongst his peers.

After finally completing his 16-year journey to repair his cleft palate, Matias will be able to start a new journey – regaining his ability to speak.

By the end of the day Marielle said what I’m sure Matias was feeling as well, “I feel as though I am in a dream here because of Operation Smile. I never want to wake up!”

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