Throughout his family’s journey of raising a child with a cleft condition, Adam Corbin never imagined that he’d one day become a vital part of a company changing the lives of children just like his 10-year-old son, Carter.
Learning that one of their twins would be born with a cleft lip and palate, Adam and his wife, Crystal, experienced some of the same emotions that many parents of children with cleft conditions instinctively feel: worry, uncertainty and, oftentimes, guilt.
Having no prior knowledge of cleft conditions, Crystal and Adam relied on the resources available to educate themselves on what this would mean for their son. This proved to be imperative for not only increasing the young couple’s awareness of cleft and the world-class surgical solutions offered, but it also diminished their feelings of fear and blame.
“We were truly blessed to be where we were and had an excellent team preparing and educating us every step of the way,” Adam said.
Sadly, accessing information on possible solutions isn’t always attainable for families living in the low- and middle-income countries where Operation Smile works. Questions parents have about cleft often go unanswered, and many children in need of safe surgical care continue living years with unrepaired cleft conditions, enduring painful bullying and treatment caused by the devastating stigma.
As the polymer lead for Johnson & Johnson’s suture manufacturing subsidiary Ethicon, Adam is a part of the production of the surgical sutures that Operation Smile uses during surgeries on children like his son’s. Operation Smile’s 30-year partnership with Johnson & Johnson garners a compassionate community of people devoted to delivering care and medical products to the areas of the world where they are needed most. Over the course of the partnership, the company has donated more than $30 million in gifts-in-kind to Operation Smile, and its associates have raised more than $6 million through employee fundraising campaigns.
“Being personally impacted with Carter, I know exactly what the families and kids are going through,” Adam said. “It’s such a joy to know that all of the products we make at Ethicon will help children overcome the hand they have been dealt and we’ll forever be a part of their story.”
We recently sat down with Adam to learn more about how Carter’s journey shaped his entire family and how it underscores the importance of his work at Ethicon.
Q: Tell us about when you and your wife learned that one of your twins would be born with a cleft lip and cleft palate. How did you each react initially?
A: “I was in the Marine Corps stationed in Fort Worth, Texas, at the time and was on a 24-hour post and couldn’t leave base to attend the ultrasound with my wife. She called after the appointment and said that she needed to come on base and talk to me. When she arrived and saw me, she fell apart. I asked, ‘What was wrong?’ She finally managed to get out, ‘One of the twins has a cleft lip and palate.’ As a mother, of course, she was questioning; what did she do wrong? I simply responded with what, at the time, seemed to be OK in my head: ‘That’s it? That can be fixed. It’s going be OK.’”
Q: Leading up to the twins' birth, how did you and your wife prepare for the journey ahead? Describe what those emotions were like and how it affects your relationship with each other?
A: “After finding out about clefts, we did what anyone would do and ran to the internet, trying to get any answers or education that could prepare us. The emotions were difficult to control seeing picture after picture on the internet wondering how to explain this to our oldest daughter, who was anxiously awaiting her brother and sister’s arrival. Reading all the special care and procedures to come was overwhelming to say the least. Being halfway across the country from friends and family also weighed on how we would manage our newest additions to the family.”
Q: After Carter was born, how did what you learned and what you prepared for compare to reality?
A: “Even with all the preparation in the world, I don’t think we could have been prepared for the journey we were about to embark on. I can still recall the emotion of seeing him whisked away in the delivery room with a whole team of staff giving him extra-special attention. When I was finally able to see his face, I came back to my wife’s side. She asked, ‘How is he?’ Without hesitation, I responded, ‘He’s beautiful!’
“Every day that passed was a learning curve. How to feed him, keeping him elevated after feedings and taping his lip several times a day for his special appliance.”
Q: Could you describe Crystal’s and your emotions as you anticipated Carter’s surgery?
A: “Carter’s first surgery was at 3 months, when they closed his lip and the soft palate. I can still remember my wife and I sitting in the waiting room before his surgery contemplating if we even wanted to do this. Would Carter think we didn’t love him the way he was? We loved him exactly how he was. After debating on walking out of the waiting room, we came to the conclusion it was solely about Carter’s future, and we wanted to give him the best opportunity to be as normal as any other kid.”
Q: With surgery having such an impact on your family, what special significance does that lend to your work at Ethicon?
A: “I feel such a great sense of pride and accomplishment every day knowing that what I do at Ethicon is not only saving lives but also changing them. Making sutures that are used in surgery every day is very humbling. Complete strangers that are having procedures, and now I’m bound to them and their families.”
Q: You determined that a co-worker of yours likely built the sutures that helped heal your son. Could you tell us more about how Ethicon employees track the sutures used in surgeries to the people who made it?
A: “It’s always a highlight in my day to have someone come up and shake my hand and say, ‘Thank you for making the sutures for me or one of my family members.’ As a very close-knit family ourselves, we pride ourselves on quality and helping others. Anyone who has surgery done, personally or a family member, is asked to keep their suture packets, and we trace them all the way back to the very first step. Everyone who was a part of the process is given a personal thank you, often from a fellow associate who was affected or their family member. It really grounds me to know that what I do every day impacts someone's life.”
Q: What did it mean to you to learn that Ethicon and Johnson & Johnson are longstanding partners of Operation Smile? How did it feel knowing that you had a chance to help kids who need the same surgery as your son?
A: “The first time I saw an email in my inbox regarding an opportunity to help support Operation Smile, I lit up. Learning that we are partnered with Operation Smile seems like an obvious recipe for success.”
Q: How has your son handled his cleft care journey so far? What have been the most challenging moments? The most rewarding? Tell us more about how this experience has shaped his character.
A: “Ever since birth, we’ve made it a point to build him up and not make his path any different than his twin sister’s. I can still remember the difference in his first cry after the first surgery when his palate was closed. There was a different tone and pitch to his cry that wasn’t there before. He’s truly flourished and surpassed any and all expectations.
Speech is the most challenging task to overcome for anyone with a cleft. We take making consonant and vowel sounds for granted. Seeing him struggle to say something was and is the hardest thing to deal with as a parent. The most rewarding part is that he excels in English Language Arts, which is where most kids with speech issues tend to struggle. It’s definitely shaped him in a sense that most kids just speak out about a kid who’s different. Carter always takes into consideration their journey and why they may be different.”
Q: How have these experiences shaped who you are as a family?
A: “Going into the hospital was a true eye opener and made us grateful for the minor endeavor that we were coming to grips with. I want to take a moment to recognize Mackenzie, Carter’s twin sister, and what a crucial role she plays in the family dynamic. While being the twin to a special needs brother, she has been nothing short of a godsend, as she has been able to communicate with Carter even when no one else could.
Izabella, the oldest, never distinguished between brother and sister. Even while I’m writing this, she said, ‘I totally forgot he had a cleft. He’s like any other 10-year-old boy.’ Of course, I need to recognize my wife, who went from a weeping mess to one of the strongest women I know and handled many trips alone while I was still active duty. This occurrence has honestly been a life-altering experience and has shaped each and every one of us.”
Q: Is there anything else you would like to add?
A: “I don’t want to miss the opportunity to thank Operation Smile for allowing us to share our story. All of the work that it does to help those children and families who are far less fortunate than we have been. To Ethicon and Johnson and Johnson for the strides that they take each day to help communities all around the world. The impact that all of those organizations have on families is, for the most part, unbeknownst to many.
I just want to convey that no matter what you are facing in life, there is someone who has walked a similar path and has come to the other side stronger than they ever thought possible. A question that often gets asked in times of hardship is, ‘Why me?’ But I challenge you to ask, ‘Why not me?’ How do you know that you can’t handle something until you are genuinely tested to carry such a burden?”