Devoted to Their Daughter

When Elisa was born in Madagascar, her parents’ joy lasted only for a fleeting moment before they saw her cleft lip and cleft palate.

This is an advertorial article published in The Irish Catholic newspaper.

In an instant, their hopeful excitement gave way to overwhelming sadness.

Jean consoled his wife, Sidonie, encouraging her to be strong and that they would do everything they could to help Elisa. Though the parents were heartbroken, they held fast to their faith. They believed that their daughter’s condition was an obstacle sent by God for them to overcome.Indeed, their faith would be tested.

The midwife who helped deliver Elisa told her parents that surgery could repair their daughter’s cleft lip and palate, but the procedure would be too expensive for them. 

Undeterred, Elisa’s parents began seeking out surgical care for their daughter.

Sidonie and Jean were referred to a local doctor to see if he could help. When Elisa was 6 weeks old, the family travelled to the capital city of Antananarivo to see a plastic surgeon, who then explained that Elisa was too young to receive surgery and asked them to return in about five months for another evaluation.

Meanwhile, Elisa’s cleft lip and palate made it difficult for her to breastfeed and she soon became underweight. Desperate for her daughter to gain weight, Sidonie spoon-fed milk to Elisa, but it wasn’t enough for her to thrive. By the time the family returned to the surgeon when she was 6 months old, he delivered more bad news. Elisa had become malnourished and was not healthy enough to receive surgery.

Devastated by the diagnosis, Sidonie and Jean returned to their village uncertain about their daughter’s future. Still, they remained hopeful that she would one day receive surgery. Fortunately for Elisa, spoon feeding ensured that she would survive until she could begin eating solid foods, which helped her return to better health.

Though Elisa was too young to realise it, Jean and Sidonie dealt with cruel treatment from some members of their community. Some even seemed to take pleasure in the family’s suffering and blamed Sidonie for Elisa’s condition. Turning to superstition, certain neighbours said that Elisa’s cleft was caused by Sidonie using a shovel or wearing a key as jewellery during pregnancy.

All the while, the family continued to pray that Elisa would get the surgery she desperately needed as the odds for her future continued to worsen.

In the most resource-poor, poverty-stricken places like rural Madagascar, as many as 93 percent of children with an unrepaired cleft condition die before their 20th birthday.

Elisa at 2 years old waiting for the surgery to correct her cleft palate and cleft lip

Elisa at 2 years old, with other patients waiting in the pre op ward to be called for surgery with patient

When Elisa’s parents finally learned that Operation Smile provides free, safe cleft surgeries and would be conducting a medical mission in Tamatave, their prayers were answered.

Unlike Sidonie and Jean’s previous attempts at providing cleft surgery for their daughter, this time Elisa would not be turned away.

A comprehensive health evaluation determined that Elisa was healthy enough to receive surgery to repair her cleft lip. Her parents were overjoyed to learn that her life would soon be forever changed.

Sidonie and Jean waited nervously as the Operation Smile medical team performed Elisa’s surgery. After her successful procedure was completed and Elisa awoke from anaesthesia, the family poured out emotions when they were reunited in the post-operative room. After so much hardship, Elisa’s smile was finally whole.

When the family returned home, their neighbours were shocked by the difference in Elisa’s appearance. Children who once kept their distance from Elisa now became her playmates. Now Elisa is a happy and cheerful girl, living a fulfilling life.

Elisa with her mum, Sidonie, and dad Jean looking at their healthy daugther.

It all starts with nutrition

Malnutrition is one of the biggest barriers to children receiving the cleft surgery that could change their lives.

Breastfeeding is usually impossible because babies can’t latch on properly, and the specially designed bottles that babies with a cleft condition need often aren’t accessible to parents.

Children then become malnourished, which – as well as the immediate threat to their life – means they won’t be strong enough for the surgery that means they could eat normally: it’s a torturous circle.

But Operation Smile never just turns a child away.

If they don’t pass their comprehensive health evaluation, children are supported by Operation Smile’s nutrition programmes which provide ready-to-use-therapeutic food (a type of peanut paste), formula milk and cereals to families, along with education sessions and monthly assessments.

“We train families to use what they have to create nutritious food for their children,” says Dede Kwadjo, Operation Smile volunteer nutritionist. “We ask what they have available: fish, beans, banana. Then we work with them on solutions.”

“It’s so hard to tell parents that their child is too unwell for surgery,” says Dede. “We always promise to return. And thanks to our nutrition programmes, we can then give children the smile they deserve.”

Elisa standing happy fater her cleft lip surgery

Elisa standing proud

Elisa after cleft lip surgery, walking happily with with Mother Sidonie and Farther Jean Chrisostome

The family no longer has to hide their beautiful and healthy daugther

What is Operation Smile?

Every three minutes a child is born with a cleft, and this statistic doesn’t change even during a global pandemic. This means that 1 in 700 babies are born with a cleft lip or cleft palate, a gap in the lip and or mouth that didn’t close during early pregnancy.

In the developing world this isn’t always an option: the surgery can cost up to a year’s salary and often there are no local medical professionals qualified to carry out the procedure. This condemns children to a life of stigma and difficulties with breathing, eating and speaking. Many will never go to school.

Since Operation Smile was founded in 1982, Operation Smile’s medical volunteers have provided hundreds of thousands of free, safe surgeries to children in more than 30 countries.

Children can’t wait any longer for the care they need

No parent should have to choose between keeping a roof over a child’s head or giving them the medical care that they need to be healthy.

45 minutes is all it can take to perform the surgery that saves and changes lives and it costs as little as €180 This is possible thanks to the generous contributions of medical professionals who volunteer their time, as well as corporate partners that donate critical supplies and equipment necessary for safe surgery.