At 20 years old, Virgilio couldn’t read, write or speak properly. He had never been to school, but he yearned to learn. He did not have any friends, but wanted so deeply to chat and laugh with his peers. Virgilio lived with his mother, father and other siblings, none of whom looked like him – he was the only one in his family with a cleft lip.
Virgilio’s cleft condition kept him from gaining the confidence to leave his home in pursuit of his dreams. His family believed it was fate and there was nothing they could do. Even when they heard surgery was a possibility, they didn’t trust that surgery was safe. His father told him surgery would do more harm than good. Regardless of his family’s warnings, once Virgilio heard an organization called Operation Smile was coming to help people like himself, he was determined to make it to the medical mission site in Puebla, Mexico.
Local social workers told Operation Smile in Mexico about Virgilio and his father’s concerns. Though they lived more than two hours away from the medical mission site, a group of Operation Smile volunteers traveled to the family home to tell Virgilio’s family the organization could help their son for free. With much convincing, Virgilio traveled with the volunteers back to Puebla to the Hospital Betania to receive life-changing surgery.
“You could tell he was overwhelmed. He had never left his home before, never been to a hospital or been examined by a doctor,” said Reynaldo Ortiz, an Operation Smile videographer. “I just kept telling him, ‘It’s OK, everything will be OK. I know this is too much to understand right now, but all these people are here to help you.’ Very slowly he came to trust me and open up. I knew I had to be with him throughout his surgery.”
When it came time for his surgery, he was worried and lonely. His sister managed to come to the hospital the day of his surgery, which was a huge relief for him. Though he had the support of several volunteers around him, having a family member at the hospital seemed to change his whole outlook.
“After surgery, looking at himself in the mirror, he had no words,” Reynaldo said. “It was too much for him. His reaction was one of disbelief. It took him a while to realize that person looking back was even the same person."
As the day went on Virgilio sat in the recovery room with his sister, smiling and staring at himself in the mirror. He told his sister how excited he is to go back home and show his family how surgery helped him.
“He wants to learn how to read, he wants to learn how to write and get a job outside of the home,” his sister told the volunteer team. “Thank you, thank you so much. Now he has a chance to go after his dreams. This is a new beginning.”
During that week in Puebla, Mexico, Operation Smile provided life-changing surgeries to 117 children and young adults like Virgilio.