As Janat entered the world, no one could’ve predicted the physical and emotional challenges that laid ahead for her and her family.
Remembering back to the day when she saw her daughter’s smile for the first time, Fatima recalled the shock and fear that filled her heart.
“I was scared,” Fatima said. “I was scared of her. It was the first time I had seen something like that.”
But as she held her newborn baby in her arms, Fatima and her husband, Youssef, knew that they would do anything to protect and care for Janat.
However, due to factors outside of their control, keeping that promise became increasingly more difficult as Janat’s health declined rapidly.
For children born with cleft conditions, especially a cleft palate like Janat’s, they often encounter major hurdles with feeding and struggle to receive proper nourishment during the most critical time in a baby’s development.
Janat and Fatima confronted these obstacles every day.
“I was afraid that I was going to lose her,” Fatima said. “She was suffocating, and the milk would come out of her nose. It was very painful for me seeing her like that. I was scared and didn’t know where to go or who to ask.”
Fearing for their daughter’s health, Fatima and Youssef felt helpless as they watched Janat steadily become smaller and sicker during her first weeks of life.
“I had no hope that she would live,” Youssef said. “Every day, we thought she was going to die. She couldn’t breastfeed or bottle feed. Every day, we thought that she wasn’t going to live.”
Despite the consistent failed attempts at feeding Janat and the fear of watching her become more malnourished each day, Youssef and Fatima persevered, determined to keep the promise they made.
Then one day, their hopes were realized.
After a family member showed her an Operation Smile Morocco video, Fatima learned that the organization not only provides free surgical care for children like Janat, but that an upcoming surgical program was taking place in a little over a week in Oujda, a neighboring city three hours away.
Overjoyed to learn there were skilled people devoted to caring for children with cleft conditions, Fatima and her husband prepared to make the journey, hoping that it wasn’t too late for 1-month-old Janat, who’d already lost nearly half of her birth weight.
Alongside hundreds of families seeking out care from Operation Smile highly trained medical professionals, Janat and her parents arrived in Oujda for screening day fully prepared to do whatever they could to save her life.
“I used to cry for my daughter to see her like that,” Fatima said. “But when I saw those kids, I told myself that I’m not alone and that my daughter was born like them. I saw some kids who’ve received surgery. I was relieved when I saw them. It gave me hope.”
It was a long and grueling day for the family as volunteer pediatricians, anesthesiologists, nurses and other specialties assessed Janat’s health throughout the screening process.
At 1 month old, Janat was too young to receive surgery. Even if she were old enough, she was in a state of severe malnutrition that would have made it impossible to undergo anesthesia.
Just as Fatima started to think that they’d return home without a solution, the team of volunteer dentists onsite sprang into action.
Joining forces with Operation Smile Morocco staff, Drs. Carmen Kamas-Weiting of the U.S., Vilma Arteaga of Guatemala and Teresita Pannaci of Venezuela stepped in, quickly transporting Janat and her family to the local care center.
“I was so happy,” Fatima said while surrounded by the dental team preparing to fit Janat with a feeding plate. “I’m happy that, finally, she will receive help.”
With a cleft palate – a gap in the roof the mouth – patients struggle to eat or drink because milk oftentimes spills out of their nose or causes them to choke, making it almost impossible to obtain the necessary amount of nutrition needed to thrive and gain weight.
Having a cleft palate also makes patients vulnerable to illness, as they are more susceptible to infection, disease and even death.
To protect patients like Janat from the dangers of malnourishment – dangers that can prevent them from receiving the timely cleft surgery they need – dentists like Teresita rely on pre-surgical dental care like feeding plates.
The plates serve as the first step toward improving a patient’s health, leading them away from starvation and guiding them toward a healthier life – toward surgery.
“A baby with a cleft palate can’t eat,” Teresita said. “That’s why it’s so important to rehabilitate the function of breathing, sucking and swallowing food so that the child is eating in the home environment. This is the real reason why treatment must be done from birth.”
Patiently waiting for the dentists to create the plate, Fatima shared with the team that Janat could only manage to consume around three ounces of milk throughout an entire day.
This amount is dangerously lower than the recommended two to three ounces of milk newborns are expected to consume every few hours.
With the feeding plate, the process of eating for Janat was transformed.
After testing out her new plate for the first time, Janat drank two and a half ounces of milk in less than eight minutes.
“I started to feel calm; [the plate] was working,” Teresita said. “I looked at her mother, and that’s when I saw she had tears in her eyes. When I asked, ‘Why are you crying? What kind of tears are these?’ She said, ‘They are tears of happiness,’ because she knew that her daughter was safe.”
Fatima, filled with relief, revealed that it was the first time she’d ever seen Janat drink without suffocating.
“I wasn’t expecting that – that they have this kind of solution for little kids,” Fatima said. “I was really happy that my daughter can drink milk, get full and be calm. I can’t describe my feelings. I was so relieved and so happy.”
Fatima, Youssef and Janat returned to the care center once more during the mission before heading home. After receiving demonstrations and educational support on the feeding plate from Teresita, Fatima felt confident in her ability to feed Janat.
Adapting well to the plate, Janat slept comfortably in her mother’s arms with a belly full of milk for the second say in a row – perhaps for the first time in her life.
Drinking a few ounces of milk may seem insignificant, but the feeding plate also enables patients to reach even larger milestones: improving nutrition, achieving and maintaining weight for surgery, breathing easier for a better quality of life, lessening the severity of the cleft palate as well as improving jaw and nose development.
Although Janat didn’t receive surgery, Fatima and Youssef’s determination was stronger than ever before, and they planned to return to the center on an ongoing basis where volunteers could monitor Janat’s care and progress.
The first month of Janat’s life had been filled with fear, uncertainty and seemingly impossible obstacles. But after leaving the Oujda care center with a newfound hope and the support of Operation Smile Morocco volunteers behind them, Youssef and Fatima were confident that Janat’s path toward recovery had finally begun.
“My hope grew since the day I went to Oujda,” Youssef said. “She started to drink properly. She started gaining more weight day after day.”
With possibly only days left to live prior to obtaining her feeding plate, Janat was one of the last patients who received life-saving dental care from Operation Smile Morocco.
Because less than a week later, COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic.
Countries everywhere hastily began closing its borders, halting transportation services and shutting down businesses. Operation Smile Morocco, like all of our teams around the world, made the decision to postpone future missions and care delivery at care centers.
While the decision was made to ensure the safety of patients, families, volunteers and staff, the postponements left thousands of patients like Janat waiting.
As a child grows, feeding plates should be replaced regularly. But with the pandemic forcing the closure of the Oujda care center doors, where Janat was expected to return, receiving a new feeding plate became impossible.
“All the hope that we had started to vanish when COVID-19 appeared,” Youssef said. “We were really impacted by this pandemic. We lost hope as everything started to close.”
Janat’s family wasn’t sure if Janat would ever be able to return for the additional comprehensive cleft care she still needed. The Operation Smile Morocco team didn't know if they’d see her again.
Six months later, Youssef and Fatima received a call that changed everything.
“When I saw [Operation Smile Morocco’s] phone number, I was so happy,” Youssef said. “Our hope was back.”
The Casablanca care center’s doors had reopened.
Unlike their journey to Oujda, which was a three-hour trip from their home, it would take Fatima and Youssef two days to reach Casablanca, a daunting journey for any family to make.
With the feeding plate, they had watched their daughter grow stronger each day, only for that hope to be ripped away by the pandemic.
But Youssef and Fatima had also witnessed something beautiful: families holding their children in their arms after life-changing surgery.
That reason alone is why they knew that no amount of distance would discourage them from seeking that same opportunity for Janat. They made the two-day trip to Casablanca five times.
“Nothing is too hard when it comes to my daughter,” Fatima said.
Back in the care of medical volunteers, Janat received new feeding plates, pre-screening health evaluations and a date for Operation Smile Morocco’s October 2021 surgical mission. With each visit over the course of her many trips to the center, improvements to Janat's health and happiness were undeniable.
Dr. Soukaina Dahou, volunteer dentist for Operation Smile Morocco, was part of the team of dentists who created Janat’s first feeding plate. Reconnecting with Janat’s family and watching as she ate cookies and laughed with joy, Soukaina couldn’t believe she was seeing the same child she met more than a year prior who’d been close to starvation and unable to breastfeed.
“Seeing Janat again truly is one thing that proves that what we do is really important,” Soukaina said. “To see them healthy, to speak correctly, it makes me very happy. Seeing these results comforts me. It means that we help people in a good way.”
Janat and her family traveled for the sixth time to Casablanca hopeful that the team of medical volunteers would share the news that Janat could finally have her long-overdue cleft lip surgery.
Overcoming her battle with malnutrition, months of delayed care amid the pandemic and countless miles traveled to and from her home, Janat passed her comprehensive health evaluation.
“My dream is coming true,” Youssef said. “Janat is the light of the house. I wanted to see my daughter as other girls, I wanted her to grow up and be a normal kid. She will be able to talk to people normally. I was so happy when they called me and told me that my daughter will receive the surgery.”
During a surgery that took a little more than an hour, Janat and her family's lives were changed forever.
Fatima understands that while she’s relieved and filled with hope after seeing Janat’s new smile, this surgery is just one step along Janat’s cleft care journey.
Operation Smile Morocco plans to provide Janat with surgery to repair her cleft palate, the condition that nearly took her life more than a year ago.
Gazing at her transformed smile, Janat’s family feels prepared to make any sacrifice and travel any distance to ensure her future is bright.
“I didn’t expect her to be this perfect,” Fatima said. “I am ready [for her cleft palate surgery]. I will go anywhere, any place. She is my priority.”
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.