From the moment María found out she was having a son, every decision she made revolved around him and his happiness.
As with most first-time mothers, María was prepared to face the inevitable challenges that would arise. But even before her son was born, María was faced with a challenge she never imagined could happen when she was told that she would need a second ultrasound during her five-month prenatal check-up.
María never anticipated to hear from the medical team that they had detected a cleft condition on the scan.
Instantly, her worry deepened and she began to fear what this would mean for her son, Sebastian, and how it would impact his life and future.
As the fear began to set in after the news, a doctor spoke with María to explain what she could expect when having a baby with a cleft condition. They explained to her that her son’s cleft lip could be repaired through surgery, which would enable Sebastian to live the life María always dreamed of for him.
She began researching organizations that could help her son so that when he was born, she would be prepared with knowledge of what to do and where to go.
Amid her search, María discovered Operation Smile Mexico.
She immediately trusted what she saw and was confident that the local team of volunteers had the skill and commitment to provide her son with the necessary care for his cleft condition as well as the ongoing care Sebastian would need after his surgery.
The hope she had gained through her search wavered slightly after seeing Sebastian for the first time, bringing back many of the original fears and worries she felt early on in her pregnancy.
But despite her uncertainty surrounding how his cleft condition would impact his feeding, one thing María knew for certain was where she would go to receive support and care for her newborn son.
At just 10 days old, Sebastian attended a 2019 Operation Smile Mexico surgical program.
“I had some problems feeding him because I was never able to breastfeed him,” María said. “At first in the hospital, he was fed with a syringe, and thanks to Operation Smile Mexico, when I went to the mission, he was given a few special feeding bottles.”
Attending the program was enlightening to María. It was the first time she recognized that they were not alone in this journey. There were many mothers and fathers, who had traveled from much farther distances, at different stages in the process of receiving cleft care.
At 10 days old, Sebastian was too young to receive cleft surgery. But following that program, Sebastian continued to routinely attend dental treatments at the Operation Smile care center in Puebla and began receiving speech therapy.
Things were beginning to look up for María, she could tell that Sebastian had a wonderful and caring team of volunteers working with him and soon he would be old enough to receive surgery to repair his cleft lip.
What nobody knew at the end of 2019 was just how drastically the world would change in the next few months and how it would alter the course of Sebastian and María’s cleft care journey.
María and the team caring for Sebastian were hopeful that he would receive surgery during a program in 2020 – a program that was ultimately canceled because COVID-19 had begun to spread throughout countries around the world.
Health systems were forced to turn their attention to fighting the virus, leaving many communities waiting for surgical care that was deemed nonessential. International travel was halted, and the world seemed to remain at a standstill.
“For my family, since the beginning of the pandemic, it has been a little complicated,” María said. “Many sources of employment have disappeared. One a personal level, my sales have decreased. Most of my clients had businesses, and many of those closed.”
Due to the pandemic, Sebastian’s speech therapy transitioned to Zoom. Even through virtual services, Sebastian continued to excel in his learning.
“Online speech therapies have been very helpful,” María explained. “He already knows when it is Zoom time. He does everything, he lets himself go.”
Just as online forms of communication kept those around the world connected with friends and family during the pandemic, it helped Operation Smile stay connected with its patients, ensuring that they didn’t lose touch with patients who would be eligible for care when surgical programs resumed.
María knew that she’d done everything she could to achieve what was best for Sebastian. Despite the challenges the pandemic posed on her family, María refused to let her determination falter. Regardless of how difficult their journey became, María knew her love would allow her and Sebastian to face them together.
María attended Operation Smile’s education course for parents, which helped her closely follow the recommendations from Operation Smile Mexico’s volunteers who provided her guidance and support that helped her gain the knowledge she needed to keep Sebastian healthy until surgeries resumed in Mexico.
It took almost a year, but María finally received the phone call that she had been waiting for.
There would be another surgical program in Puebla in 2021, and there was a chance for Sebastian to receive surgery. María knew this was her chance to give her son the care that he needed and deserved.
The following months passed quickly as María did everything she was taught during her previous consultations with Operation Smile volunteers to give Sebastian the best chance of passing his comprehensive medical evaluation and becoming eligible for surgery.
Her perseverance and hard work paid off.
“When they gave me the news that Sebastian would have his surgery the next day, I felt very nervous, very excited. I had mixed feelings,” María said. “But very happy because I know that after this, everything would be different.”
Finally, it was time for Sebastian to enter the operating room.
“The most difficult part was when I handed Sebastian over to the surgeons. It was like saying, ‘I put almost everything I have in your hands,’” María said.
She grew to trust the Operation Smile Mexico volunteers completely, but as a mom, she still felt afraid in that moment.
“Seeing Sebastian after surgery in March was such happiness and a very radical change, because he was completely happy,” María said. “It was a new little face, a new smile.”
After his cleft lip surgery, it was like both she and Sebastian were given new lives. Gone were the original hardships of learning to feed and care for her newborn. Gone were the worries about him getting teased because of his appearance.
María and her son were finally ready to begin the life she always dreamed of with him.
“You can’t tell he’s received surgery. You can’t see that he has any scars at a distance,” María explained. “Since his surgery, he interacts with children and continues to play with them. His diet is a little more abundant. And well, he’s been healthy.”
Later that year, a thriving Sebastian returned to the care of Operation Smile Mexico volunteers to receive surgery to repair his cleft palate.
Throughout their time in the care of Operation Smile Mexico, María and Sebastian have made lasting friendships with other parents and patients, like Valeria and Lilia, whose lives have also been transformed by the love and care of Operation Smile volunteers.
“Now that Operation Smile is going to operate on his palate, I hope it’ll be one of the last surgeries. I hope I’m doing everything for him because I know he needs it,” María said. “I hope everything goes well, and I will always keep going, as they say.”
Sebastian’s palate surgery was a success, and he continues to grow into a healthier, happier young boy. But Sebastian’s journey with Operation Smile Mexico continues through ongoing speech therapy care and dental treatments.
“Operation Smile is a very humane foundation, it is very charitable, very noble. And if someone knows someone with this condition, know it can be fixed, and they are not alone,” María said. “Always by the side of incredible people and volunteers who give everything so that we are well.”
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.