“There were so many other mothers going through the same as me,” Sunday’s mom, Esner, said after arriving to an Operation Smile Malawi surgical program with her son.
It felt as though she had been waiting a lifetime for this moment. When in reality, their journey to get Sunday his cleft lip surgery began nearly one year prior.
Throughout those 12 months after Sunday was born, Esner felt very isolated at times. Certain members of their community voiced their unease about her and Sunday as they walked by, saying hateful comments and whispering about how Esner had been bewitched.
Wondering why her son was born with a cleft lip, Esner was sad, scared and believed she was the person to blame. Doctors and nurses tried to calm her fears by explaining what a cleft lip was and informing her that surgery was possible.
She tried her best to disregard the remarks from her community, but sometimes they were difficult to ignore. However, with every insult and harsh word, Esner’s determination to find a solution deepened. She didn’t want to imagine a world where Sunday grew up and one day began to hear and understand the hurtful comments people were saying about his smile.
She was referred to Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Blantyre. It was at this hospital where Esner and Sunday’s lives took a hopeful turn.
After a short ride to the hospital from where Esner lived, she discovered that the solution she’d been searching for was even closer than she expected. At that moment, Operation Smile Malawi had a team of world-class medical professionals preparing to host a surgical program for children born with cleft conditions.
Even though Blantyre is Malawi’s second largest city, the health care system often faces gaps when trying to meet the medical demands of the population. In areas of the world like Malawi where under-resourced hospitals have a lack of highly trained medical professionals, access to timely surgery and cleft care is often unavailable or inaccessible to those who need it most.
Esner arrived at the program surprised at the hundreds of other families who were going through the same challenges as her. Sunday had just turned 1, but she saw children at the program who were older. She even saw adults waiting for treatment, who had endured years of living with an untreated cleft condition. In that moment, Esner felt relieved that she’d found a solution capable of providing her son with the care he needed while he was still young.
Esner’s dream of preventing her son from ever experiencing isolation or harmful gossip felt closer than ever before. With surgery, Sunday would live the rest of his life without the stigma associated with an untreated cleft lip.
They met with the compassionate volunteers at the program site who conducted his comprehensive medical evaluation and determined that Sunday was a candidate for surgery.
After one operation, which can take as few as 45 minutes, the course of Sunday’s life was changed forever.
The fear that Esner felt as she watched volunteers carry Sunday into the operating room soon turned into overwhelming joy.
“I was amazed and so happy when I saw him,” Esner said. “The change was unbelievable.”
Esner’s husband, Antony, patiently waited at home for his son and wife to return. Although nervous for Sunday, he was hopeful that the surgery would be a success and that his son would live a happier and healthier life.
Upon returning home, Antony saw a change in his son that was more incredible than he ever imagined.
“My husband was so amazed at Sunday’s smile that he went around the whole village telling everyone they had to come and see his baby,” Esner recalled. “People kept coming for two days.”
Many members of the community who had once spoken badly about Sunday were stunned to see the drastic change.
“If I ever met the doctors, I would not know what to say. I am still overwhelmed with gratitude for what [Operation Smile] did for my son,” Esner said.
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.