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Patient Story Bolivia

Lighting the Way

Patient Story Bolivia

Lighting the Way

Pamela and Luz in 2004. Photo by Marc Ascher.

After the heartbreaking miscarriage of her first child, Pamela was overjoyed to reach full-term with her second, Luz, a name meaning “light.”

But the happiness she felt after giving birth to her baby girl was replaced with the darkness of fear and confusion when the doctor took her away.

Pamela was only given a glimpse of Luz before she was ushered into a separate room.

When the doctor came back, Pamela saw her daughter’s cleft lip and palate for the first time. Shock and blame overwhelmed her, but she loved her daughter and wanted answers.     

“At first, I thought that it was because I had had a previous miscarriage as a result of a fall,” Pamela said.

Her doctor assured her that this was not the reason for her daughter’s cleft lip and palate (while it’s difficult to determine the exact cause of an individual cleft case like Luz’s, Operation Smile is leading the way in cleft research with its partners in the International Family Study).

He told her that surgery was possible, but mentioned nothing about Operation Smile and the cleft lip and cleft palate surgeries that it provides at no cost to Bolivian patients and their families.   

Going home led to more obstacles and more fear. Her daughter’s cleft condition made it almost impossible for her to breastfeed properly, and Luz began to lose weight. Becoming desperate, Pamela resorted to feeding her milk with a spoon, but Luz continued to cry out in hunger.  

Pamela and Luz in 2004. Photo by Marc Ascher.

Fortunately, a friend of Pamela, whose baby had also been born with a cleft lip, arrived at their home with a special feeding bottle that had saved her child’s life. Feeding from this bottle, Luz soon began gaining weight and growing strong.

For several months, Pamela and her mother searched for any piece of information on cleft lip and cleft palate surgeries. And for several months, they were left without answers.

In 2004, after almost a year of living with an untreated cleft condition, Luz was given a chance at a brighter future when a street vendor informed her grandmother about having seen an announcement from Operation Smile on television.

Pamela and her mother called a volunteer from the Operation Smile team and learned that there was a medical mission taking place in Santa Cruz, Bolivia.

Neither the distance to the mission nor her small income were going to stop Pamela from raising enough money to pay for the journey – a journey that could alter her daughter’s life forever.   

The trip for Luz, her mother and her grandmother proved to be challenging. During the trip, they faced a collapsed bridge that prevented the bus from crossing safely. All of the passengers were forced to walk until they could reach another bus, making an 18-hour trip even longer.

After many hours of walking, waiting and riding, they made it to Santa Cruz.  

As she approached the medical mission site with Luz and her mother, Pamela felt uncertain and anxious. She didn’t know what to expect nor what the medical volunteers would say about her daughter’s cleft lip and palate.

But her hope returned when she saw other children with not only the same cleft condition as Luz but, in some situations, even more severe. In that moment, she knew that they weren’t alone.

Operation Smile medical volunteers completed a comprehensive health evaluation and determined that Luz was healthy enough to receive safe surgery and was placed on the first day of the mission’s schedule. Pamela was thrilled to hear that Operation Smile was going to give her daughter a chance at a more dignified and happy life.

Pamela comforts Luz after her cleft lip surgery from Operation Smile at the 2004 medical mission in Santa Cruz, Bolivia. Photo: Marc Ascher.

Luz was fortunate enough to have found Operation Smile at an early age, as she was able to avoid the dangerous infections that can occur, as well as the damaging ridicule and stigmatization many face when living with an untreated cleft lip or cleft palate. 

Luz and Pamela in 2012. Photo: Marc Ascher.

“Thanks be to God that Luz has never had any problems,” Pamela said. “She never felt different.”

Today, Luz is a junior in high school with plans to make a difference – to shed light on the world by continuing her education.

“I don’t know what I want to study yet, but I do want to do something that will help people,” Luz said.

Luz in 2018 at 15 years old. Photo: Margherita Mirabella.

She adores her dog, Beethoven, and enjoys listening to her favorite singer, Justin Bieber. Luz also loves playing soccer and volleyball with her two best friends, Judith and Mariana.

Luz is scheduled to return to a mission to receive a rhinoplasty and to reconnect with the Operation Smile medical team who helped give her the smile she always deserved.  

Photo: Margherita Mirabella.

Pamela had this message for Operation Smile supporters and its medical volunteers: “Thank you very much for the help and support you have given me at the missions. I really feel that when I go to the missions, you are my family.”

Luz and Pamela in 2018. 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.