“I have been praying to get this surgery”
Faustina’s weary eyes surveyed the open-air convention hall that will become her home for the next few days.
She watched as volunteers worked through sweltering heat to convert this space into accommodations for her, 74 others living with cleft and their families. They’ve traveled from across Ghana to Koforidua with the hope of receiving free cleft surgeries from Operation Smile.
She stuck close by her father, Mohammed, as he told a volunteer the story of their 15-hour, three-leg bus journey from their remote village Ghana’s Western Region.
Alongside exhaustion, there was also pain in Faustina’s eyes.
For 17 years, she lived with the burden of her unrepaired cleft lip. It’s places in Ghana like her hometown of Amoya where the deeply rooted stigma of cleft is the most severe.
“I can’t go anywhere because of my cleft,” she said. “I can’t attend school. I just spend my days helping my mother at home.
“I have my family, my siblings and parents, but I have no friends and I feel sad. I know that if I have the surgery, I will make friends.”
Protective of their child, her father and stepmother decided that she wouldn’t attend school and discouraged her from venturing out into public. They feared she’d be the victim of emotional and physical abuse.
Before her journey here, most of time that Faustina spent in public was when she’d walk to church to attend services with her mother and five younger siblings. From a young age, she knew that people pointed her out and talked about her in hushed tones as she passed by.
Mohammed said that he’s always accepted Faustina’s condition as God’s will. When his daughter was born, doctors told him that surgery could fix her lip. However, the procedure couldn’t be performed at their district hospital, and it would be too expensive for him to afford.
After he brought Faustina home from the hospital, nearly all of Mohammed’s friends disowned him. Most of them feared that her cleft could spread to them (which isn’t not possible – cleft lip and cleft palate are congenital conditions). Mohammed said he has a friend who still refuses to eat or drink at his home to this day.
Twelve years passed before Mohammed was told about Operation Smile and the medical mission in it was conducting in Accra, Ghana’s capital city. Unfortunately, by the time he received the news, the mission had already come to an end.
In 2014, Mohammed learned of another surgical mission (unaffiliated with Operation Smile) that coming to Takoradi, the nearest big city. He and Faustina traveled to the mission site, but registration was full and they were turned away.
Everything changed for Faustina in November 2017, when her father heard that a neighbor took his child to a recent Operation Smile mission in Koforidua. While the neighbor’s son was too young to receive surgery then, his father gave Mohammed Operation Smile Ghana’s phone number.
With patient coordinator Clement Ofosuhemeng arranging transportation for Mohammed and Faustina’s trip to Koforidua, a beacon of hope for her future finally appeared.
“If I get the surgery, I can go back to school and study hairdressing and become a hairdresser,” she said. “I have been praying to get this surgery.”
But first, Operation Smile Ghana medical volunteers had to determine if Faustina was healthy enough to receive surgery. She received a medical evaluation as well as individual consultations from a variety of specialists offering comprehensive cleft care, including surgeons, dentists, child life specialists and speech language pathologists.
The next day, Faustina and Mohammed were elated to learn that she was selected to receive surgery. For two anxious days, she waited for her chance to receive the procedure for which she’d been praying.
On the morning of her surgery, her surgeon, Operation Smile Ghana’s medical director, Dr. Opoku Ampomah, greeted her before they walked hand-in-hand into the operating room.
With a fatherly presence and a calm, confident and soothing delivery, Opoku explained everything that Faustina could expect throughout her procedure in their local language of Twi. She reflected his tone, nodding in understanding and smiling as Opoku prepares to change the trajectory of her life within the next hour.
“Faustina is a typical example of someone who’s born disadvantaged because of her cleft condition,” Opoku said. “You can imagine how much stigmatization she’s had to deal with in the past, so for people like that, really, I’m grateful that we were able to reach her.”
After Opoku closed the final sutures of Faustina’s surgery, he paused and leaned his head down toward her right ear.
With love and compassion resonating in his voice, he delivered a heartwarming message.
“I told her that she will now be the Western Region’s representative on ‘Ghana’s Most Beautiful’ (a pageant-style reality TV show),” Opoku says with a warm smile.
After he showed Faustina her new smile on his phone screen, she sprang up and offered thanks to everyone in the room. Her eyes were filled with tears of joy when she gazed at her face in the mirror.
Mohammed said: “Now that Operation Smile has helped my daughter, today when I look at her, I feel happiness within me.”