In her free time between teaching and working toward completing her master’s degree, 24-year-old Carol Chigona serves as an Operation Smile Malawi volunteer.
It was during Operation Smile’s recent Women in Medicine surgical program that Carol decided to share her story. Growing up, Carol’s parents told her that the reason her lip looked different was because she had fallen as a child.
Carol was in her second year of college when she learned the truth: She was born with a cleft condition.
Reflecting on memories from her childhood, Carol shared that she didn’t realize she looked different from the other kids until she started going to school. Her classmates began making comments about her appearance and would often ask what happened to her lip and her nose.
As she grew older, the bullying and ostracization intensified.
No longer merely asking questions, children at her school started directly teasing Carol by calling her hurtful names. This harmful treatment resulted in her frequently leaving school to go home and cry. Carol shared how this experience during her early childhood years led to her developing a fear of people, which shaped her character growing up.
As an adult, Carol said that she would try to stay quiet when she was around other people because she didn’t want them to notice she was there.
After discovering Operation Smile on social media and reading about its global community of medical volunteers, Carol realized that surgery could change her life. Although she finally had a name for her condition, more of the truth emerged after she announced her hope of getting surgery to her parents.
Carol’s mom and dad told her that they’d attempted to repair her cleft condition twice when she was younger. Once when she was 3 months old and again when she was 2 years old. Her parents explained that these surgeries were unsuccessful because they were done by medical professionals who lacked the specialized skills and training needed to perform cleft surgery (unaffiliated with Operation Smile).
But with Carol’s research on Operation Smile, her family was confident that they could place their trust in the organization to successfully repair her cleft lip completely.
In 2018, Carol underwent cleft surgery from Operation Smile.
Before discovering Operation Smile Malawi, Carol had never met another person with a cleft condition. She believed that no one else had endured the same painful bullying and challenges that she experienced growing up with her smile. But during the surgical program, Carol felt emotionally connected to the other patients because she finally knew she wasn’t alone. After her surgery, she noticed how people stopped asking questions about her appearance. Instead, they saw the person she was behind the smile. The person she had always been.
A new journey in her life began. Carol had to get used to being around people, making friends, showing up for herself and venturing outside her comfort zone.
This led to Carol attending Operation Smile’s 2022 Women in Medicine surgical program in Malawi.
Before surgery, Carol never could’ve imagined herself standing in front of a room full of people from fifteen different countries around the world, including the first lady of Malawi, and sharing about her cleft care journey. She currently volunteers for Operation Smile because she has personally felt the lasting impact their work has on people’s well-being and quality of life. Carol says she volunteers because she wants to be part of a team that brightens children’s futures and gives them the confidence to smile.
With this determination and her own newfound confidence, Carol decided to continue her education. Today, she teaches and is pursuing her master's degree. After that, she hopes to get her Ph.D.
As a true example of Operation Smile’s impact, Carol’s wish for children like herself is that they refuse to let anyone tell them that they deserve less out of life.
“Everyone has something that they are going through,” Carol said. “Maybe the cleft is visible, but that does not mean that you can’t do great things in life.”
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.