Growing up, Dayana would often ask, “When am I going to get the surgery?”
For 11 years, Dayana’s mom, Eluvia, didn’t have answers to her daughter’s questions. Right when she seemed to be closing in on a solution, the answer Eluvia wished for continued to evade her.
“I would cry. I’d spend every night crying and crying. I couldn’t find a way,” Eluvia said. “I’d try to breastfeed her, but she wouldn’t latch on. And I’d cry bitterly for her because the whole night would go by, and I had no idea what to do.”
Two months after her birth, Dayana was taken to a hospital in San Cristobal where Eluvia was told that she was too young to receive surgery. She would have to return when Dayana was 3 years old.
But even when the possibility of surgery and a new smile appeared, it would just as quickly slip away.
After waiting the suggested three years, Eluvia tried again to get Dayana the surgical care she needed when she heard about a program with another organization taking place in Petén. Unfortunately, Eluvia didn’t receive any additional information from the organization’s team about when or where the mission was taking place. She was left without any idea of where to go or who to call. Once again, Dayana was left without care.
Still, Eluvia’s hope would not falter. But as Dayana grew older, she became more familiar with the harmful stigmatization surrounding cleft conditions.
“She asked me why she was born like that,” Eluvia said. “She’s already embarrassed to go around like that since she’s grown up.”
But as hard as she tried and as determined as she was, Eluvia couldn’t find care for her daughter near their rural Guatemalan town.
Everything changed in early 2022 when she was told about Operation Smile Guatemala.
“I was happy,” Eluvia recalled. “Finally. I found a solution.”
Eluvia had hope once again that her seemingly endless search to give her daughter a new smile would come to an end.
It had been nearly eight years since the last time Eluvia had heard about an opportunity to get Dayana cleft surgery. Eluvia was put in contact with Operation Smile Guatemala and discovered that a surgical program was taking place later that month.
And this time, Eluvia was told where to go, when she was expected to arrive, what information she would need to bring and why she should trust that Dayana would receive the highest quality of cleft care from the medical volunteer team.
“I was very happy to know there was a solution,” Eluvia said. “They told me not to worry. They encouraged me.”
Dayana and Eluvia were soon on their way to Petén.
Eluvia felt stunned at what she saw after completing their long journey from their remote community where they often face isolation and lack of access.
“I thought I was the only one with a little girl like that,” Eluvia thought when she arrived in Petén. “Where I live, there are no people like that. She is the only one.”
Eluvia wasn’t the only person taken aback during Dayana’s initial interaction with the Operation Smile team.
“It was very shocking to meet her for the first time,” said Dr. Alma Castaneda, volunteer pediatrician with Operation Smile Guatemala. “To see that she was an older girl, and that she had not been able to have surgery anywhere. To see the hope with which she came to screening was very emotional. It’s all about helping them, whatever it takes.”
Dayana was cleared to receive surgery in Petén, but before surgery could take place, Eluvia once again faced an unexpected obstacle.
“Dayana is a very special patient,” said Dr. Val Paredes, volunteer cleft surgeon. “But unfortunately, we couldn’t operate on her in Petén because her mother tested positive for COVID, and we had to cancel the surgery.
“This was difficult for us, this was difficult for me, as she was so hopeful.”
After waiting 11 years for surgery, Dayana departed from the program without her new smile.
But Eluvia never felt alone.
As an older child who did not receive care in Petén, Dayana became one of Operation Smile Guatemala’s priority patients and remained in contact with the local team. Despite leaving Petén without the outcome they wished for, Eluvia remained hopeful. From the moment she first connected with Operation Smile Guatemala, Eluvia felt confident that – unlike her earlier attempts to find care for Dayana – she had a team of people around her who were committed to seeing her daughter’s cleft care journey through to the end.
“I felt bad. I cried,” Eluvia said. “But I was like, ‘Thank God there’s going to be another opportunity.’”
Three months later, that opportunity arrived.
After traveling more than five hours for her second attempt at cleft surgery, Dayana and Eluvia saw many familiar faces during screening day.
“To have another opportunity and say, ‘Please do not get sick,’” Val said. “It really was important, as she is an older girl. We have seen many adults with cleft lips and cleft palates, but at this age, it’s very important for her future development.
“They need to feel normal. They need to feel and be seen as a human being.”
Once Val and the Operation Smile Guatemala team performed Dayana’s comprehensive health evaluation and provided all necessary COVID-19 testing for a second time, Eluvia received the news for which she had been waiting.
Dayana was placed on the surgical schedule.
“After her surgery, she will have a very different life from what she imagined,” Alma said. “It’s magic, truly.”
Eluvia finally walked Dayana toward the operating room and toward the brighter future she always hoped to one day achieve for her daughter.
Dayana is quiet, but the joy and love she has for her mom are undeniable. Even before undergoing cleft surgery, Dayana’s smile portrayed the happy and kind person she is at her core. With her new smile, it’s difficult to visualize the young girl who faced years of isolation and exhausting journeys. Today, people see Dayana’s true self. A girl who loves to make tortillas, draw and care for her family.
“I cried with happiness when I saw her,” Eluvia said. “She looked really pretty. I just hope for her to recover so that she can study and be a young lady.”
Our promise of improving health and dignity during the COVID-19 pandemic endures. Once again, we’re providing surgery and in-person care while taking stringent measures to keep families safe. Hope is on the horizon. And we remain focused on what cleft care makes possible for children, helping them to better breathe, eat, speak and live with confidence.