Her Unwavering Strength

Patient Stories
Andrea holds her 2-month-old son, Kyungmin, during Operation Smile Peru's 2019 medical mission in Lima, Peru. Photo: Margherita Mirabella.
Andrea holds her 2-month-old son, Kyungmin, during Operation Smile Peru's 2019 medical mission in Lima, Peru. Photo: Margherita Mirabella.

For 38 years, Andrea lived with an unrepaired cleft lip. But as she waited during patient screening at Operation Smile Peru's medical mission in Lima, Peru – surrounded by her family and hundreds of people who were also in need of care – Andrea wasn’t thinking about herself.  

In her arms lay her 2-month-old son, Kyungmin, who was also born with a cleft condition.

As a mother who’s experienced the unbearable pain of losing two children, Andrea traveled to Lima with her only thoughts being focused on finding Kyungmin a solution that would repair his cleft lip.

Eight years before arriving at the 2019 medical mission, Andrea lost her first son to bronchial issues 10 days after giving birth.

Three years following her son’s tragic passing, Andrea met, fell in love and married her now-husband, Santos. They were thrilled to be starting a family together with their first child – a son named Nelson.

But Santos and Andrea’s joy quickly transformed into feelings of concern and heartbreak after seeing Nelson’s cleft lip.

Due to his cleft condition, Nelson spent weeks struggling to breastfeed. And Andrea and Santos’ fears deepened as they watched their baby’s health continue to decline.

In an effort to try to save their son's life, Santos and Andrea resorted to buying formula, which placed a large financial burden on the family. Thanks to their sacrifice, Nelson began to thrive and grow stronger. But Andrea found little comfort in the small victory because she knew that without receiving the care he needed, Nelson would continue facing more obstacles and enduring more pain.

Determined to help her son, Andrea traveled with Nelson for several hours toward what she hoped was a solution. When they arrived, a woman – who Andrea believed to be a surgeon – performed both Nelson and Andrea's cleft lip surgeries without anesthesia and without sufficient medical training.

Due to the unsafe working conditions and improper surgical care, Andrea’s operation was unsuccessful and her results reversed a few days after returning home.   

Photo: Margherita Mirabella.
Photo: Margherita Mirabella.

One year later, tragedy struck Andrea and Santos once again. At only four years old, their beloved Nelson passed away.

Coping with the agony of losing Nelson weighed heavily on the family. For Andrea, the loss of a second child was devastating. But she wasn’t alone with that pain. Andrea still had a husband and a daughter who loved her and relied on her strength through that difficult time.

When Andrea became pregnant with Kyungmin, she and Santos were overjoyed. While still healing from the loss of their son, the couple was happy to welcome another child into their family.  

But on the day of Kyungmin’s birth, Andrea and Santos’ strength was tested yet again when they saw his cleft lip.  

Two-month-old Kyungmin during screening day of Operation Smile Peru's 2019 medical mission. Photo: Margherita Mirabella.
Two-month-old Kyungmin during screening day of Operation Smile Peru's 2019 medical mission. Photo: Margherita Mirabella.

Devastated by the news, Andrea couldn’t help but think of Nelson. Having already lost a child who had a cleft, Santos and Andrea feared that Kyungmin would also struggle to breastfeed and worried how they would afford a second round of formula.   

Thankfully, Kyungmin had no trouble breastfeeding. But Andrea’s relief of seeing her baby eat was soon overshadowed by the harsh reality of how living with an unrepaired cleft condition can impact a person's everyday life.   

Growing up, Andrea was the second eldest of nine children and lived in the remote region of La Libertad. With no other families or homes nearby, Andrea’s siblings were the only friends she had.

Although the isolation of her home allowed her to avoid the harmful teasing and stigmatization that many children with cleft conditions can endure, it also prevented Andrea from attending school.

Lacking proper knowledge of a possible solution for Kyungmin made Andrea anxious about her son’s future. But those uncertainties began to alleviate with the help of her younger brother Juan Carlos.

One day, while reading the newspaper, Juan Carlos saw an announcement for an upcoming Operation Smile Peru medical mission. Declaring that free surgical care would be available at the mission site, the article encouraged families to bring their babies and children who were living with cleft conditions.

Having never heard of the organization before – and remembering his sister’s previous attempt at seeking out care with Nelson – Juan Carlos knew he had to make certain that the opportunity for safe surgery he had found was real before contacting his sister.

After researching the organization and speaking to a doctor from a nearby clinic, Juan Carlos became convinced that Operation Smile Peru was the solution for which Andrea had spent years searching. 

Upon completing the 30-hour journey from their home, Andrea, Kyungmin, Santos, Juan Carlos, and her daughter, Liz, arrived at Operation Smile Peru’s medical mission in Lima with one hope cemented in their minds: Get Kyungmin the life-changing surgery he needed.

Andrea and Kyungmin, left, Santos and his daughter, Liz, right, and Juan Carlos pose for a photo during screening day. Photo: Margherita Mirabella.
Andrea and Kyungmin, left, Santos and his daughter, Liz, right, and Juan Carlos pose for a photo during screening day. Photo: Margherita Mirabella.

After performing a comprehensive health evaluation, medical volunteers determined that Kyungmin, in addition to showing signs of bronchial issues, was too young to undergo safe surgery. Telling families like Andrea's that their child can't receive surgery can be a difficult and painful conversation. But by implementing Operation Smile Global Standards of Care, the organization ensures that patient safety remains at the heart of every mission. 

When Andrea's family was told that Kyungmin would need to be a little older before undergoing surgery, it seemed as though all of their efforts and sacrifices they had made to get him to Lima had been for nothing.

But before Andrea and her family departed, medical volunteers proved to them that not all hope was lost.

In addition to treating Kyungmin’s illness, the volunteer team said that they would repair Andrea’s cleft lip.  

Before the Lima medical mission, Andrea thought that Operation Smile Peru only operated on babies and young children with cleft conditions. Hearing that her cleft lip – something she had lived with for 38 years – could be repaired in as little as 45 minutes was shocking and hard to believe.

But as she looked into the mirror after having passed her comprehensive health evaluation and received surgery, Andrea saw the new and beautiful smile she would have for the rest of her life.

Clinical coordinator Linda Highfield of the U.S. holds a mirror for Andrea to see her new smile after receiving surgery to repair her cleft lip. Photo: Margherita Mirabella.
Clinical coordinator Linda Highfield of the U.S. holds a mirror for Andrea to see her new smile after receiving surgery to repair her cleft lip. Photo: Margherita Mirabella.