Editor's Note: In Ethiopia, Operation Smile is helping to strengthen the country's health system through specialized training and education programs while continuing to provide patients with world-class levels of surgical care. This story is the second of a four-part series.
Her name means “solution.”
The moment Meheftehe was born, she was in desperate need of just that.
Meheftehe suffered from a severe facial cleft which extended from her right eye through her cheek, lip and palate. Her mother, Genet, had already endured an extremely difficult labor that she feared neither her nor her baby would survive. On the third day of labor, Genet was losing blood and needed emergency obstetric care, which required a three-hour drive to the nearest hospital in Jimma, Ethiopia.
The traumatic labor finally ended with a successful delivery, but the reality of Meheftehe’s cleft condition delivered another crushing emotional blow. Genet and her husband, Jafar, symbolized their hope for their daughter through her name. The young family needed a solution for Meheftehe, who was unable to close her right eye.
“I was devastated to have this happen to my baby,” Genet said. “I wondered why God punished me like this, through my own child. I was so sad, I didn’t even talk to my mother. I lost all hope for life.”
Genet and Jafar live in a small rental home in Gera and earn a living by serving traditional Ethiopian food in the front of the house. It was here that Meheftehe was hidden from her community.
“When neighbors came to bless her, I didn’t let them see her. I told them she was sleeping,” Genet said. “I didn’t want them to see her to protect her from their judgment.”
Fortunately when Meheftehe was born, hospital staff told the young couple about Operation Smile's work and that they could soon return for evaluation by its medical volunteers - expert plastic surgeons from around the world.
Operation Smile was set to host a Surgical Training Rotation, an educational program designed to improve surgical capacity in Ethiopia by training its general surgeons in reconstructive plastic surgery techniques and theory. The rotation began just 19 days after Meheftehe’s birth.
While waiting for Meheftehe’s comprehensive health assessment at the hospital, Genet clung tightly to her daughter, hiding her from view with a blanket. Meheftehe’s name was called, and Operation Smile volunteer plastic surgeons Dr. David Orr of Ireland and Dr. Malin Hakelius of Sweden delivered their assessment.
“If the lower eyelid can’t help the upper eyelid in closing the eye, the risk is that the cornea of the eye will dry out and become ulcerated, and the child will develop a scarring of the cornea and blindness,” Orr said. “It’s important to get that eye protected, and cover it, as soon as it can possibly be done.”
Orr also informed Genet that the infant would need six months to gain enough weight to receive safe surgery. After the assessment, Genet became overwhelmed with emotion, though better news for her family would soon arrive.
Seven months later, Meheftehe finally received the first of her many needed surgeries at an Operation Smile medical mission to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital city.
"We managed to reconstruct her lower eyelid and to close the cleft on her right cheek and lip,” said Hakelius, who performed Meheftehe’s initial surgery. “Now we need to reconstruct her soft palate so that she can develop good speech. After that, we'll have to observe her development and wait as long as possible before more surgery, to let her grow as normal as possible.”
A year after her first surgery, another Surgical Training Rotation returned to Jimma, where Meheftehe received the procedure which repaired her cleft palate.
“This tells a lot about the work that Operation Smile is trying to do, which is not just taking a child for an operation once and then leaving them, but also taking on more difficult cases and planning for further surgery,” said Dr. Petra Peterson, an Operation Smile volunteer plastic surgeon from Sweden who operated on Meheftehe’s cleft palate.
“They made promises to us, and I knew they would keep their promises. I have never doubted that,” Genet said. “I am 100 percent satisfied. You cannot compare before and after her first surgery. For each month that passes, I see her improvement.”
In addition to Meheftehe's physical transformation, the family has also experienced a significant emotional transformation. Meheftehe is a joyous and playful toddler, and Genet envisions a bright future for her daughter in which she can be part of the solution for others in need.
“For us, education is the solution now. I want to help Meheftehe earn an education to become a doctor so she can help other children,” Genet said, smiling widely. “That is my dream and my wish.”