It was March 24, 2012, early in the morning.
Alex Guerrero and his wife, Adilia, chose to give birth at a private clinic for the first time. This would be their fourth child, a baby boy.
However, when their son César was born, something was terribly wrong. The doctor told Alex that his son was born with deformities, a cleft lip and cleft palate — and his advice was simply to try to avoid letting people see the baby. It would be traumatic for everybody.
“At that time, I felt my world was falling apart,” Alex said. “So many questions raised inside me. Is this a punishment from God? Is it my wife’s fault? Do I suffer from some illness? Is he going to die? How do we feed him? Where do we go for help?”
Nobody had answers and nobody had any help to offer – not the doctors at the private clinic or at the regional hospital in Olancho, Honduras, where they live. The doctors only told them the problem could be solved by surgery but had no information on where to go. They also didn’t know how to help them feed their son.
The critical situation soon became dire.
“He got very low in his glucose levels because we could not feed him – to such a degree that he almost went into a vegetative state,” said Alex, his eyes tearing up from the memory. “He lost his mobility and yet no one could tell us what to do.”
For almost eight months, Alex and Adilia desperately searched for someone who could help them. They went to private clinics and government hospitals. They drove to all the big cities. One clinic asked for 200,000 lempiras (more than $8,000) for the first cleft lip and cleft palate surgeries. It was money they just didn’t have.
“We thought about selling our house, selling the car. It was all we had, it was my family inheritance,” Alex said. “It hurt so much to have to lose it all. And it hurt to see my son dying. I felt I was at a dead end.”
Then, one of the doctors Alex met during the family’s search mentioned Operation Smile but told him they might be charged for the surgeries. Other doctors at private clinics warned the family that even if surgeries were offered for free, Operation Smile would charge them for blood, supplies and medicine. They implied that it would cost them a fortune to go there.
But Alex and his wife decided they had no choice but to try Operation Smile as a last resort to save their son’s life. On the way there, even a taxi driver warned them about Operation Smile, saying they stole children’s organs and let medical students practice surgery on patients.
“We came with a lot of fear because everyone spoke very badly of the foundation. They gave us very, very bad information, completely negative,” Alex said. “I talked to my wife and told her that we were going to make this last attempt and we were going to help our child in any way we could. If God decided for him to die, we would accept it.
“As soon as I went through the gates to the Operation Smile Honduras care center in Tegucigalpa, I felt a very different feeling. The staff were kind and treated us with respect. It was like seeing the light at the end of a long tunnel.
“We realized that all the bad things I had heard about Operation Smile were 100 percent lies.”
Alex’s son received safe surgery a few weeks later. It didn’t cost them a single lempira.
At that moment, Alex made a commitment.
“I made a promise to God, to Operation Smile and to my son that for as long as I live, there will not be one single person in Olancho living with an untreated cleft lip or cleft palate. I don’t want anybody to go through what we have been through.”
Editor's Note: In the 20-year history of Operation Smile Honduras, our medical volunteers have delivered free cleft surgery to more than 4,500 patients. However for most of this time, all too many patients born with cleft conditions were not able to get surgery when they were babies, which is the ideal age range for the best results.
In 2014, there were about 1,000 cleft cases remaining in the country and many of those potential patients were adults, teens and children. Together with Operation Smile Honduras, we made a commitment to find them and end their needless suffering by making sure they receive the safe and effective surgery they deserve.
Supported by medical missions and the ongoing care provided at Operation Smile Honduras’ care center, a strategy was put into motion to identify and recruit potential patients, many of them among the poorest and hardest-to-reach in the country.
We’re proud to report that the effort was successful.
Now, the remaining patients in Honduras who need surgery are nearly all babies and toddlers. For the first time in the country’s history, Operation Smile has made sure that cleft surgery in Honduras is truly SET: safe, effective and timely.
On May 11, 2017, Operation Smile Co-Founder and CEO Dr. Bill Magee made the historic announcement alongside the President and First Lady of Honduras.
Though we’ve reached this historic milestone, our work is far from done.
In this series, we share the stories of how Operation Smile Honduras was able to find and provide surgery for the final patients of the country’s backlog of cleft cases.