Britany's Care Center Connection
Cintia didn’t understand what was wrong with her daughter, Britany, when she was born. Her daughter was born with a cleft lip and cleft palate, deformities she had never seen or heard of before. “I felt my family didn’t show me any support. They were looking at this problem as if it was nothing. I felt very lonely,” says Cintia.
Cintia lives with her 2-year-old twin sons and Britany, 9 years old, on the outskirts of Tegucigalpa, Honduras. Her husband works in another city and returns home once per month. She works as a street vendor selling cakes.
When Britany was 4 months old, she received surgery to repair her cleft lip at Hospital San Felipe in Tegucigalpa. However, the surgery was not done by a plastic surgeon and the stitches soon broke open, leaving her with an open wound. Hope was not lost. “I was told about Operation Smile and that they had a specialist team that could do this at their centre. I went there and they gave her a medical evaluation. When she was 10 months old, her lip was repaired again,” Cintia explains.
The staff at Operation Smile’s care center, only steps away from Hospital San Felipe, has since performed additional surgeries to correct Britany’s cleft palate, and she comes regularly to the center for the comprehensive care offered there.
“Our center is really something extraordinary, because we attend to patients in so many different areas; like psychology, dentistry, orthodontics, speech therapy as well as pediatrics, surgery and anesthesiology,” says Jeanie Barjum, Executive Director at Operation Smile Honduras. “Even though the appointments are booked in advance, we have new patients coming in almost every day. We see disheartened parents coming through the door of our center, and they can meet immediately with our psychologist. You can see a complete change. They are filled with hope that their children will be able to smile.”
In 1997, Operation Smile extended its medical programs to six cities across Honduras, including San Pedro Sula, Santa Rosa de Copan, and Tegucigalpa. A year-round cleft lip and cleft palate care center in Tegucigalpa offers free surgeries to patients with post-operative care as well as continuous dental and orthodontics care, pediatrics care, speech therapy, audiology and psychology consultations. The center opened in 2007.
“Honduras is a small country with 8 million people, and we have given more than 4,000 smiles during these 19 years since we started working here. Since the opening of the center, we have had more than 25,000 appointments. This is a very high number if we consider that one in every 500 children born here has a cleft condition,” says Barjum.
The hospital benefits from hosting Operation Smile’s international and local teams for the “brigadas” or medical missions, says Dr. Cruz. Hospital San Felipe doesn’t offer plastic surgery, but his staff’s exposure to the medical missions allows for cross-collaboration. “The staff is getting a lot of experience since we only do these kind of surgeries when Operation Smile is here. My staff also gains experience and knowledge to bring with them if they work outside the hospital, for example, in private clinics,” he says.
At the care center next door, a dozen patients and their parents are waiting for their appointments. Stephany Martínez is the patient coordinator and keeps track of all the hundreds of patients on their list. “Our patients are mostly very poor. They have to travel far to reach the center or a hospital where we have medical missions, and they lack the knowledge about the possibilities and benefits of surgery,” she says. “We hear many shocking stories. For example, we had a 58-year-old woman with a cleft lip who had never had surgery, because people in her village told her a surgery would be life-threatening.”
Her colleague, dentist and odontologist Gisela Lopez, shared, “Many people might know about us, but they don't know that the service we offer is for free. Even if they have problems paying for transportation, Operation Smile will pay their transportation to the center, especially for those living outside the city.” Lopez’s role — and the roles of all of the medical specialists working at the center— involves more than just providing medical care. “Many times it is more than giving them medical care, you show them affection, you tell them how handsome they are or you just make sure that the child feels accepted. We see all our children at the center as beautiful!”
Gloria Vilchez is the care center’s audiologist and speech therapist. She knows the importance of having patients and their parents regularly visit the center for ongoing treatment. “The children here need a lot of stimulation. We live in a country with a low level of education and many parents don’t know that they need to stimulate their children from an early age to be able to help them in their speech development. And they need to practice at home, not only here. So the work we are doing here helps because we can give steady support to the parents that need it.”
In the care center’s playground outside, Britany is playing on the swings with some help from her mother. “I am so happy because she has been able to live a normal life, she doesn’t feel any shame; she has no problems, and is just a happy girl,” says Cintia. “I imagine that if she didn’t have those surgeries, her life would have been very difficult, filled with bullying. Children who can’t speak properly are bullied at her school. She has good speech, and she is in good health, and I really want to thank God and Operation Smile! Without them, she wouldn’t be happy like this.”