“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 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.”
This is Landrycia.
A couple months ago her grandmother reached out to me having heard that I brought children to an Operation Smile mission in Tana. I greeted her and her grandchild and explained that I would not be able to attend the mission held in Tamatave yet if she was prepared to travel on her own I would ensure that she would make it safely and be housed. I coordinated with the Catholic Church in Tamatave and paid this woman and her grandchildren fare up to the city.
Two months passed by and no sign of her or her grandchild. With no cell phone it was impossible to reach out to her. I didn’t know if she made it safe. I didn’t know whether her grandchild had been a candidate for surgery ( suffering from cleft lip).
At 8 months she looked tiny, thin, weak, and tired. Her mother had a difficult time breast feeding her because of the cleft lip and had been ostracized by members of her village for not properly caring for her child, thus leaving the child in the care of the grandmother.
Today, a young girl ( the one in the photograph showed up at my house. I responded “Akory!” (Hello!”) my mind turned she looked familiar. Then a few seconds later her grandmother came around the corner, “charlotteeyy! Efa sitrana Landrycia!” The grandmother yelled ” she is healed!” I stared in awe. This young girl was no longer weak, no longer thin, no longer without hope. She stood in front of me with beautiful big round eyes, healthy as can be barely a scar in sight.
Thank you Operation Smile.
Eddie another Peace Corps volunteer near my village and I gathered up some potential candidates for the Operation Smile Mission happening in Tana. We biked out one Sunday to the “ambanivolo” of Mahanoro and found three potential patients. When we arrived in the first town we asked around for the Chef Fokotany and let him know that we were in search of children who had cleft lip or cleft palates. He pointed us in the direction of a small ravinala house where a mother, father, and 6 month old child who had a cleft lip. We talked to the family about Operation Smile’s mission and the opportunity they would have to come up with us to be screened for surgery. Within minutes crowds of children hoarded around us staring inquisitively.
Word spread quickly and soon we had a list of 20 people that suffered from either cleft lip or cleft palates. The one that surprised me the most is a young boy who lives less than 15 feet from my house his name is Tino, he has already had the surgery once before but it did not go well and his parents are hoping this program will offer Tino a new chance at a smile.
On Thursday I woke up at 5 am and gathered my belongings- I met the two families, Delina and her mother from the “ambanivolo” of Mahanoro and Tino and his mother and father. We broussed up and on the way picked up Lezoma a 30 year old man with a bilateral cleft lip. Next we picked up Eddie, PCV, and four other patients. All together we arrived in Tana, the capital, and set them up in the Catholic Church. They are being hosted by the Catholic Church, which has been so accommodating and sweet by feeding and offering a warm place to stay for Op Smile patients.
On Saturday, we woke up at the crack of dawn and headed over to the hospital where we waited in line with 600 other individuals to get screened. Operation Smile is an amazing organization, but unfortunately they cannot cater to the large amounts of patients that showed up. They screen all the individuals and rank them by priority. I had the opportunity to talk to the Clinical Coordinator and shared my story. I shared the story of the Mahanoro group taking a journey and adventure to get here to Tana in hopes of having a chance at a new smile. The Clinical Coordinator was amazingly cooperative and understanding. She appreciated the braveness and adventure the group had been on and made sure that all 7 of the individuals Eddie and I brought up made it on the surgery list!
All 7 are scheduled for surgery for Tuesday afternoon. I could not be happier.
Julie Delina approved for surgery. Getting ready for her new smile 🙂