Greth Liseth was devastated when her son, Erick Manuel, was born.
She had never seen anything like a cleft lip or cleft palate before; and nobody could explain why her Manuelito – “Little Manuel” – was born that way. She couldn’t breastfeed him and she felt so helpless that she couldn’t feel love for her child.
Greth Liseth is a mother to five children whom she has been raising alone since her husband abandoned their family. The 35-year-old strives to care for her family, but life is hard in their home on a dusty, gravel road in a remote, impoverished area of Olancho, Honduras.Photo: Rohanna Mertens.
Greth Liseth wakes up at 5 a.m. every morning to prepare breakfast for her children before they go to school. She then goes to work as a cook in a private home. Her oldest daughter, 14 years old, stays home to take care of Manuelito. Greth Liseth only earns 1,000 lempiras ($44) each month, which is never enough to buy groceries for her children. She must borrow money to survive.
When Manuelito was born, she felt overwhelmingly burdened, desperate and lonely. People turned to superstition and blamed Greth Liseth for Manuelito’s condition, saying she had watched too many lunar eclipses. One woman told her that her son was a monster and his deformities were her fault.
“But the doctors said I shouldn’t worry too much since they know a person that could help,” Greth Liseth said. “His name is Don Alex Guerrero and they gave me his number.”Don Alex Guerrero with Greth Liseth and her family. Photo: Rohanna Mertens.
Alex, or Don Alex as he is called by everyone he meets or helps (the use of the honorific Don conveys respect for that person), is a father to four children. His youngest son, César, was born with a cleft lip and cleft palate four years ago. He remembers how he and his wife experienced the most difficult time of their lives trying to find help for their son. No doctors had advice for them when César was born. Since his cleft kept him from feeding properly, he almost died of malnutrition. Fortunately, they learned about Operation Smile Honduras’ care center in Tegucigalpa, where they finally received the free surgery that saved their son’s life.
They have since committed themselves to helping other families in their region. Greth Liseth’s family is one of them.
“Don Alex found me at the bus station when I had just left the hospital,” Greth Liseth said. “I didn’t know how to feed my son. Don Alex told me to stay there. He left and came back with formula, drove me home and taught me how to feed my son.”Don Alex helped Greth Liseth learn how to feed her baby. Photo: Rohanna Mertens.
Don Alex also invited her to his house to meet César. That was the moment when Greth Liseth felt hope return to her life.
“I was so happy when I met his child because he looks normal, without any problems,” she said. “I know that with the will of God, my son is going to be beautiful and healthy.”
Greth Liseth arrived to the Operation Smile medical mission in Tegucigalpa’s Hospital San Felipe with the hope that her son would receive surgery. Don Alex brought her and 18 other children and their family members there. Before this trip, Don Alex escorted Greth Liseth four times to Operation Smile’s care center, which is only steps away from Hospital San Felipe. The medical staff at the center provided Greth Liseth with instructions and the formula that her son needed to gain enough weight for the surgery.Don Alex poses with Greth Liseth, Manuelito and other patients he has brought to Tegucigalpa for cleft care. Photo: Rohanna Mertens.
Greth Liseth could have neither afforded the bus ride to the city, nor would she have dared to go there alone without the help of Don Alex. Without him, she would not have found Operation Smile Honduras and Manuelito would not have received one of the 150 surgeries performed on children like him during this 2016 medical mission.
Now, Greth Liseth feels confident about her son’s future.Greth Liseth and other mothers of Operation Smile patients learn more about their children's upcoming cleft surgeries. Photo: Rohanna Mertens.
“He is going to be a beautiful boy,” she said.
“He already has many ‘girlfriends’ at the center. The female staff love him and play with him every time I go there,” she said with a smile.Months after surgery, Manuelito has a beautiful smile. Photo: Rohanna Mertens.
Beyond that, her feelings of loneliness and despair have disappeared.
“I want to thank Operation Smile, because if it wasn’t for them, my child wouldn’t be able to have surgery,” Greth Liseth said. “I know that everything is going to be fine if we have faith in God, and I want to thank the staff and Don Alex for all the support they have given me.”Photo: Rohanna Mertens.
Editor's Note: In the 20-year history of Operation Smile Honduras, our medical volunteers have delivered free cleft surgery to more than 4,500 patients. However for most of this time, all too many patients born with cleft conditions were not able to get surgery when they were babies, which is the ideal age range for the best results.
In 2014, there were about 1,000 cleft cases remaining in the country and many of those potential patients were adults, teens and children. Together with Operation Smile Honduras, we made a commitment to find them and end their needless suffering by making sure they receive the safe and effective surgery they deserve.
Supported by medical missions and the ongoing care provided at Operation Smile Honduras’ care center, a strategy was put into motion to identify and recruit potential patients, many of them among the poorest and hardest-to-reach in the country.
We’re proud to report that the effort was successful.
Now, the remaining patients in Honduras who need surgery are nearly all babies and toddlers. For the first time in the country’s history, Operation Smile has made sure that cleft surgery in Honduras is truly SET: safe, effective and timely.
On May 11, 2017, Operation Smile Co-Founder and CEO Dr. Bill Magee made the historic announcement alongside the President and First Lady of Honduras.
Though we’ve reached this historic milestone, our work is far from done.
In this series, we share the stories of how Operation Smile Honduras was able to find and provide surgery for the final patients of the country’s backlog of cleft cases.