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Patient Story Malawi

A Smile That Will Last a Lifetime

Patient Story Malawi

A Smile That Will Last a Lifetime

Meet 10-year-old Mina, before surgery. Photo: Margherita Mirabella.

Mina’s parents were told that her cleft condition was the result of witchcraft.

Although her dad, Jangiya, and her mom, Zayinabu, didn’t believe in these misconceptions, which are common in developing countries like Malawi, they were still unsure of what had caused Mina’s cleft lip. And they were even more uncertain of how they would help their daughter.

Zayinabu and Jangiya vowed to do everything they could to give Mina the happy and fulfilling life that they knew she deserved, but many of their questions went unanswered.

In 2015, Mina traveled more than 120 miles with her father to reach an Operation Smile Malawi surgical program in Lilongwe. Photo: Margherita Mirabella.

It wasn’t until Mina was 10 years old that their dream of a new smile for their daughter came true. But the challenging decade-long journey held many unforeseen obstacles along the way. 

Mina’s cleft condition caused difficulties with breastfeeding, which made receiving proper nutrition nearly impossible. 

Difficulty in feeding is common among children born with cleft conditions and can lead to life-threatening malnutrition. There are even some instances, especially when involving a cleft palate, where children can die from malnourishment when they don’t receive timely medical intervention.

With unwavering determination, Zayinabu sought out help for Mina because she feared her child would not survive. Once she found the right formula and learned proper bottle-feeding techniques, Zayinabu watched in amazement as Mina began to thrive. 

Growing up, Mina always tried to find ways to express joy in everything and inspire others. The love she spread was reciprocated by the people in her community who loved and accepted her. Mina wasn’t subject to the bullying and ridicule that many patients born with cleft conditions experience. 

Her parents learned that Mina’s cleft condition could be repaired through surgery, but the happiness they felt was fleeting.

Doctors informed Mina’s family that there wasn’t a surgeon in Malawi who could perform that specific type of surgery. Their disappointment grew after being told that they would need to travel to another country if they had any hope of finding a way to help Mina.

Looking at their daughter, Jangiya and Zayinabu worried that the solution they spent years searching for would remain out of reach. Then one day, their hopes were realized.

Mina's dad, Jangiya, looks on as his daughter smiles wide as she sits between volunteer speech pathologist Valerie Dorfman of the U.S. and translator Finess of Malawi. Photo: Margherita Mirabella.

They discovered that Operation Smile Malawi had a team of medical volunteers who could perform Mina’s procedure at no cost and without requiring the family to leave the country. 

After 10 years of searching, the family found a way to change everything. But there was one more obstacle in their way. They needed to reach Lilongwe, Malawi’s capital city.

Mina and her father began their long journey to the surgical program site. After biking for an hour and traveling 7 ½ hours by bus, they arrived for screening.

Waiting patiently, Jangiya sits beside Mina during screening day during Operation Smile Malawi’s 2015 surgical program. Photo: Margherita Mirabella.

Mina found solace in the fact that she was surrounded by others like her, that she was no longer an outsider. While elated about the opportunity presented to her, Mina was still skeptical that the surgery would be permanent. In her words, she didn’t believe that she would be “cured forever.”

Medical volunteers performed a comprehensive health care evaluation to confirm Mina was healthy enough to undergo anesthesia. At every Operation Smile program, patient safety is the greatest priority. To ensure that they receive the highest quality of medical care, each patient is evaluated by pediatricians, surgeons, nutritionists and more for potential health issues that could put them at risk during the procedure.

Jangiya felt overwhelming joy and relief after hearing that Mina was scheduled for surgery. 

Mina walks in between volunteer nurse nurse Kathy Majette of the U.S., left, and her dad, Jangiya, as they make their way toward the operating room for Mina’s cleft lip surgery. Photo: Margherita Mirabella.
Anesthesiologist Dr. William Banda of Malawi, center, and the operating room team prepares Mina for her cleft lip surgery. Photo: Margherita Mirabella.

An operation that can last as little as 45 minutes changed Mina’s life forever, giving her restored hope and a promise of a brighter future. Following her surgery, Mina woke up and looked at herself in the mirror, gazing at her beautiful new smile.

Today, Mina lives a fuller, happier life.

She loves going to school, and Mina said that she aspires to become a schoolteacher one day. 

One year after her surgery, Mina smiles wide as she sits beside her dad, who stares proudly into the camera. Photo: Margherita Mirabella.

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.


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.