“I want my children to smile, I want them to be able to live their life smiling.” Seheno smiled as she stroked her daughters black hair. Seheno, mother of four, has a cleft lip. Her daughter Mena, is a twin, and she also was born with a cleft lip and palate. Her youngest boy, Fitahiana, also born with a bilateral cleft lip and palate.
“When my twins were born the first girl came into life with a normal lip, the second was born with a cleft. The midwife brought them both to me and I immediately felt sad and nervous. I reflected on my childhood as a young girl who had a cleft lip. It was difficult. I did not want my daughter to go through the same hard times. When I gave birth to my youngest son Fitahiana, he was born with both a cleft lip and cleft palate. Again, I questioned why this was happening to me. I too suffer from a cleft lip- yet I did not understand why they would have one too.”
Seheno, and her two children have attended many Operation Smile missions. This one being a very special mission for the family. Her two children had already received successful cleft lip surgery from Operation Smile. Her son received cleft palate surgery this mission. This mission was very special because Seheno herself was selected to receive cleft lip surgery as well as her children.
“I waited for my two children to be able to smile happily before I received surgery. I wanted them to have a good start to life and a new smile. Look at them- they are just so happy. Seeing them makes me happy. Now me too, I can smile, I finally received surgery! I am thankful. We have a story, one that we want to share. Our story is of strength, of family, of love, and of determination. I never stopped loving my children.”
Seheno sat proudly and wrapped her arms around her two children.
“I was once asked why I think my children were born with a cleft lip and palate. To be honest, I think God gave me these children because he knew I would be able to take care of them. They are my gifts. I understand that not everyone will have the opportunity to receive surgery, I just want to express how thankful I am. We are an Operation Smile family.”
I met Bao Zoma, mother of four and grandmother of seven, while taking a bike ride through the countryside of Madagascar. In September 2015, I joined Bao Zoma as she traveled to the Operation Smile medical mission in Tana with her middle grandchild, Sandra, who was in need of a cleft lip repair. Now that Sandra has a beautiful smile, Bao Zoma is motivated to find more children in need of critical surgical care and bring them to Operation Smile. She has become a spokesperson for Operation Smile in the part of her country where radios do not reach and many cannot read the posters that are taped up at the health huts around the village.
When asked what motivates her to find more children suffering from cleft lip and cleft palate, she responded: “My grandchild once suffered from cleft lip. My grandchild Sandra was teased, dropped out of school, and was a shy girl. Now I can’t keep her in the house, she has many friends, and is constantly smiling. She is beautiful. I would like to give that gift, the gift of smiling to others like Sandra.”
Bao Zoma recently recruited two other patients for the upcoming medical mission here in Madagascar in April.
She walked eight kilometers, crossed a river and hiked another two kilometers to reach these children– a young boy by the name of Gino and a young girl named Nordine. I am happy to report they will be joining me on the medical mission in April.
Thank you Bao Zoma, not only for serving as a spokesperson for Operation Smile, but also for being an amazing grandmother.
Check out my story on Operation Smile’s Blog: A grandmother’s wish
I met Bao Zoma, mother of four and grandmother of seven while taking a bike ride through the countryside. In September 2015 Bao Zoma brought her middle grandchild Sandra up with me to the mission in Tana. Now that Sandra has a beautiful smile, Bao Zoma is driven to find more children in need of new smiles. She has become a spokesperson for Operation Smile in the countryside where radios do not reach and many cannot read the posters that are taped at the health huts. When asked where her motivation to find more patients that suffer from cleft lip and palate comes from, she responds: “My grandchild once suffered from cleft lip, my grandchild Sandra was teased, dropped out of school, and was a shy girl. Now I can’t keep her in the house, she has many friends, and is constantly smiling. She is beautiful. I would like to give that gift, the gift of smiling to others like Sandra.”
Bao Zoma, recently recruited two other patients for the upcoming April Mission here in Madagascar. She walked 8 km, crossed a river and hiked another 2 km, to reach these patients, a young boy by the name of Gino and a young girl named Nordine. I am happy to say they will be joining me on the April Mission. Thank you Bao Zoma, for being not only a spokesperson for Operation Smile but an amazing grandmother.
“I am now the best looking man”
Lezoma, 33 years old, ostracized from his community for being different. Since a young age he was teased for his different face. Children would scream and point fingers at him, calling him names. At 11 years old he decided to drop out of school and work the rice fields. He found peace in the solitude of the rice fields, no one calling him names, no one yelling mean slurs at him. He worked as a farmer and helped out during the various fruit picking seasons to make a living.
My first encounter with Lezoma was in January 2014. I heard there was a young man who had a double cleft lip who lived in a small village off the main road called, Tsaravinany. I took my chances and biked out to the village, before no time I crossed Lezoma on the path. He carried bundles of banana leaves and two large jackfruits which hung from thick piece of wood. I greeted him in local dialect. He looked at me surprised, even chuckled a little at the sight of a foreigner speaking local tongue. I asked if we could talk, that I had something important I wanted to ask him. I explained about the mission, Operation Smile was arriving in April to the capital, Tana, and I would love to have him join me. His face brightened. He immediately answered, “You can fix this!” and pointed to the large gaps in his face. I explained that if he trusts me and would like to come up on to Tana with me I would be leaving the first week of April and I would pick him up on the main road. He agreed.
Lezoma walked into the operating room barefoot, nervous yet calm. I was present for the entire surgery and held his hand through his fear. Lezoma’s surgery went amazing, his before and after pictures were tremendous. His courageous spirit was a highlight of the mission.
6 months after we had returned from Tana, I biked back to Tsaravinany, the small village lined with rice fields and banana trees. To my surprise, young kids whom I had never seen before, ran up to me screaming, “Lezoma! Lezoma!”. My heart beat accelerated as I wasn’t sure if this was a good or bad thing that they were screaming his name. I arrived at a small coffee seller, and there sat Lezoma. His dark brown eyes looked back at me, and small wrinkled formed on the sides as he smiled. “Charlotte! Mandroso!” he welcomed me to sit. I ordered a small coffee with sugar cane syrup. “How are you? How is everything? Tell me about you.” I requested. He stood up, “Charlotte, I have a problem! A big problem!” My heart dropped, thoughts raced, what could it be, an infection? Another health problem? “ I am so good looking now, all the ladies in town want me!” He chuckled, that familiar chuckle I had heard when first meeting him. I exclaimed “ OH MY! Yes you are a good looking man!”. We exchanged smiles. Later that afternoon I headed back home, as I turned around he waved once more, and said “Thank you, thank you.”
I have an enormous amount of respect for Operation Smile and the great work they do on their missions. From Op Smile meetings to Operating Rooms I have seen firsthand how the missions are organized and carried out. It was an honor to take part in the Operation Smile 2015 Tana mission. I met and worked with a team of 90 doctors, surgeons, nurses, anesthesiologists, volunteers, coming from 12 different countries. Since I arrived in Madagascar, I noticed the rampant amount of diseases, deformities, and illnesses. Cleft lip and cleft palate rates are very high in Madagascar. Researchers still do not know as to why children are born with this deformity but in a third world country, such as Mada, where formula and feeding alternatives are scarce, many of these babies die early on. I made it my prerogative to search out potential patients in the East Coast region and bring them up for the mission this past month.
I biked to many different villages on weekends, spread the news through churches and eventually was able to find about 10 patients that would be good candidates for surgery.
The trek: The search for patients is not an easy one. Many times people with facial deformities, such as cleft lip and cleft palate are ostracized from their community. If the baby lives and has a chance to go to school, he or she may start and many times ends up dropping out due to bullying and difficulties communicating due to speech impediments. By the time they are adults many have gone through so much backlash from their community that they are shy, timid, and reluctant to accept help,
On my search this year, I decided to use churches and religious leaders to help me reach out to these individuals. Seeing that locals trust pastors and priests much more than a blue eyes blonde haired”vazaha” (term for foreigner in Malagasy). Once I located a location or village where a potential cleft lip or cleft palate patient lived, I organized a trip there. Many took half days, even full days, and some trips amounted to crossing rivers, and trekking in mud for a couple hours. Because the rainy season had just come to an end yet Madagascar’s East Coast was hit with a tropical depression during the same time I was set on finding patients, this caused many hurdles with regards to transportation.
Meeting patients: Gaining trust is crucial. During the first five minutes of conversation, I must convey to the patient and his family that I am going to take good care of him/her. That this program is real and that I am not going to kidnap their child and eat it for dinner. (You can only imagine what stories are told about vazaha.) I tell them that everything from transport, food, and surgery is free, and that they will have the opportunity for a new life after this! If they accept trusting me they show up the date of departure. This year to make things a little easier, I ended up bringing a patient that had previously received surgery from Operation Smile on a mission in Tana 2014. He became my spokesperson, my walking billboard, he shared his story and they listened. I think this helped reduce anxiety and doubts in the family, and produced trust and willingness to join the mission.
Date of Departure: On the date of departure I rented out an entire taxi-brousse (very large van) to accommodate each patient and one chaperone. We left from my village and made our way up to pick up the rest of the patients on the road. Once all in the van, I noticed that there was an interesting energy that had formed between the families. One young girl, looked at another young boy the same age as her, approximately 9-10 years old, and said “you have the same lip as I do”. She has never seen another person with cleft lip. Imagine you are born with cleft lip and everyone around you looks “normal” suddenly one day you find yourself in a van with 9 other individuals that look just like you… its mind-blowing. The energy in that taxi brousee was magnetic mothers helped mothers care for the younger cleft lip patients. The older patients sat next to one another and sang Malagasy songs on the long 10 hour ride up to the capital.
The Ride: The ride up was magical but definitely a long one. 10 hours in a taxi brousse on a windy road necessitated many many “sachets” for car sick passengers. Every one of the individuals in that taxi brousse had never been to the capital. Many had never been in a car. A 45 year old patient screeched when she saw mountains and yelled out, “WHY IS THE EARTH RISING!!!” For me this moment really showed me how much trust I gained. These patients trusted me enough to come this far.
Let me start by explaining a bit as to why I am passionate about Operation Smile’s mission. Operation Smile changes lives. I have witnessed multiple cleft lip babies pass away due to malnourshiment and starvation. Babies do not breast feed, mothers stop producing milk, and the culture of wet moms is not prominent or practiced often here on the East Coast. This leads to parents trying to find solutions on how to keep their child alive.
Last year I biked over 80 km to find children or adults suffering from cleft lip and cleft palate. I stumbled upon a young mother who was holding a tiny fragile baby. The baby cried and couldn’t produce tears do to how malnourished he was. I told her about the program and she agreed to meet me on the day of departure. ON the day we were supposed to meet to go up to the capital city, she never showed up. I worried, called the contact number I had with no luck. I continued with the mission and brought up 7 patients. Upon my return I biked back out to her village. Once there I spoke to the village chief of the village I found the small cleft lip baby. The mother greeted me silently and said, “My baby died two days before I was supposed to meet you”. I am not sure if we could have operated on this child, seeing that it was in such a state but I promised myself that I would try even harder to find all the cleft lip and cleft palate patients I could and bring them up to the Operation Smile missions.
Why do individuals not go for sugery? (seeing that the majority of the patients this year are older)
I think this is a great question. I can only speak for the conversations with the people I have had here. The majority are scared. The majority have not heard of Operation Smile because they live in the countryside, do not have phones, and do not have radios (electricity has also been limited to two to three hours a day in some villages). The majority of people tell me that they are scared because they believe that to fix cleft lip you take skin from your thigh and paste it on the mouth then sow it together. Not sure who this tall tale happened. Many do nt have the funds or money or strength to walk from their village all the way to a village where there is a direct brousse to Tana or Tamatave.
How am I finding them:
I start with flyers, and stories, personal stories. I have previous Op Smile attendees come with me to remote villages and vouch for all the great work Op Smile does for its patients. These “promoters” become the back bone of my search, they are my ears and eyes. Since they have been on the mission with me and we have a relationship they promote their story.
This year I used the churches, evidently you know that Madagascar has more churches then they know what to do with. I used the churches to get the message out to a wider radius. People trust churches therefore they trust the program the churches recommend, meaning they trust me. Trust is the glue to getting people to accept coming on the mission, sometimes when I talk to cleft lip patients and their families I feel like I am begging them to come, to trust me. Wee must consider Malagasy people have long standing assumptions and stories about foreigners. These stories definitely put a wrench in my search.
After the churches I talk to the chef fokotany, the chiefs of the villages. I explain to them the details of the program and they become my spokesperson.
Lastly I bike. I bike and I walk to every village I can carrying around 50-60 flyers handing them out. Some people just stare, some people in fear and others in amazement because of the fact I am speaking Malagasy. But in all they listen. That’s the most important. Sometimes I sit and have coffee with them, talk some more and slowly but surely one person mentions, “ oh yea in that village over there, you know by the red building across from the church theres a cleft lip child.” So I walk over and indeed there is that beautiful smile I am looking for.
I am an education volunteer so I use my students to get the word out as well. They have been great helpers in getting indivudals to trust me and not steer away at the sight of a foreigner.