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Patient Story Bolivia

A Family’s Journey Toward Healing

Patient Story Bolivia

A Family’s Journey Toward Healing

Eight-month-old Annika with her mom, Justina. Photo: Margherita Mirabella.

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. If you can, when you can, help us keep our promise to care for children and create hope for tomorrow.

Instead of joy and relief, the birth of her daughter led to some of the most frightening moments of Justina’s life. 

Seconds after being born, Annika needed immediate mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.

After watching her daughter spend two weeks being fed with a feeding tube in the hospital’s intensive care unit in La Paz, Bolivia, Justina no longer knew what to do or who to believe.  

The weeks after Annika was born were filled with a whirlwind of emotions and inconsistent opinions from medical professionals. 

One doctor told Justina that her baby would be a child with special needs. Another said that Annika was sick. 

But the reality was that Annika was born with a cleft condition.

Photo: Margherita Mirabella.

For Justina, it seemed like a lifetime ago that she was enjoying the happy memories of finding out she was pregnant. 

Those nine months waiting for Annika were filled with joy for Justina and her family. Justina believed she was starting menopause at 37 years old when, to her surprise, she was expecting her third child. 

Justina cried wondering if it would be better if Annika died and at times, she wanted to die herself.  

Thanks to the support of her husband, Asencio, and two older daughters, Justina found the strength she needed to persevere for herself and for Annika. 

Justina was diagnosed with postpartum depression, and it was through the help of her therapist that she began to see things in a new light. 

More importantly, her doctor explained that Annika was just like any other child beyond her cleft condition.

Annika was healthy, and Justina was doing everything in her power to provide a good life for her family. She turned her focus to trying to get her daughter the care she needed to repair her cleft condition.

At the school of one of Justina’s older daughters, a teacher heard that Annika was born with a cleft condition and told Justina about Operation Smile Bolivia. 

She explained the organization’s mission of providing free life-changing cleft repair surgeries to those who need it most. Initially, Justina thought the idea of free surgery was too good to be true, but she soon realized the possibilities that lay ahead.

From that moment on, everything began to look different for Justina and her family. There was hope for Annika’s future. 

With a new sense of calm, Justina contacted Operation Smile Bolivia.

At 8 months old, Annika was registered for an upcoming medical mission, taking another step toward the surgery and life she deserved. 

The family attended a pre-mission screening the week before the medical program was set to take place. Annika was seen by a surgeon and anesthesiologist who gave her a comprehensive medical evaluation to ensure she was healthy enough for surgery. 
For the first time in this process, Justina didn’t feel so alone. 

Annika was approved for surgery in Santa Cruz – 18 hours away from their home in La Paz. 

Justina began to worry about how she could afford the cost of transportation to the Santa Cruz mission site. Covering all transportation fees for its patients and families, Operation Smile Bolivia provided Justina with bus tickets and travel supplies. 

A few days later, Justina, Annika and many more families boarded the bus for the long trip. 

Justina, Annika and many other families wait with hopes that their child will receive life-changing surgery during a 2018 Operation Smile surgical program in Bolivia. Photo: Margherita Mirabella.

Once in Santa Cruz, the families staying at the patient center were taken to the zoo for a day of fun before surgeries began. For many, this was the first time leaving their communities. The fun activity hoped to ease the stress and anxiety of being in an unfamiliar environment. 

“Everything is wonderful – the care, the shelter, the trip to the zoo," Justina said. "Everyone is so warm and kind.”

Justina remembers the day of Annika’s surgery as one filled with many nerves. But she also can’t forget the joy of seeing her daughter for the first time in the recovery room. 

Volunteer pre- and post-operative nurse Asa Ostberg of Sweden checks on how Annika is feeling after her surgery. Photo: Margherita Mirabella.

Justina and her family had endured so much since Annika’s birth. But the conflicting doctors’ diagnoses, hospital visits and feelings of uncertainty were all left in the past as Justina held her daughter in her arms. 

Annika, after surgery. Photo: Margherita Mirabella.

After a few days of recovering, an overjoyed Justina and Annika boarded the bus for a long journey home. 

With Annika’s cleft condition repaired and her health in good standing, they would finally begin their lives as a new family of five.

“I’m never going to stop thanking Operation Smile and God,” Justina said.

Help us to continue keeping our promise to patients like Annika amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Your support today means we can help patients through these uncertain times and provide them with the care and surgery they deserve.

Annika seven months after surgery. Photo: Margherita Mirabella.


It takes as little as $240 and as few as 45 minutes to provide life-changing surgery and a bright, beautiful new smile to a waiting child.