Timely Cleft Surgery, Brighter Futures

Checking his phone every chance he could while at work, Felipe anxiously waited for his partner, America, to text him with news about their son, Jack.

Six-month-old Jack with his mom, America, during a 2018 Operation Smile Bolivia surgical program in Santa Cruz. Photo: Margherita Mirabella.

The anticipation of this moment after having waited months for the opportunity of surgery was almost too much for him to endure. But whether the news was good or bad, Felipe knew that, together, their family was strong enough to persevere. Finally, a text appeared. Jack was scheduled for free cleft surgery with Operation Smile Bolivia.

With tears of joy and shaking hands, America, who was at the surgical program in Santa Cruz when she texted Felipe, reassured him that their search for a solution had come to an end. At 6 months old, Jack would begin his cleft care journey. But it had been a difficult year.

Discovering their son’s cleft condition during a fifth-month ultrasound, the family’s joy of expecting their first child quickly turned to worry and fear.  Arriving home from that appointment, Felipe and América turned their devastation into determination as they began educating themselves about cleft conditions and researching their options for help. As working college students, they both knew that no amount of love they already had for their son would help them afford the cost of future surgery.

Amid their concern, hope appeared on their computer screen when they learned that Operation Smile Bolivia existed and was created to help families like theirs. As they called the phone number on the website, América and Felipe were moments away from discovering that life-changing cleft care would be free.

Unlike many parents of children with cleft lip and cleft palate, América and Felipe not only learned of their child’s condition but also found a solution before Jack was born. This is rare for families living in low-income countries.

Most mothers don’t find out about their baby’s cleft condition until they are holding them in their arms for the first time. Many fathers don’t find Operation Smile for years due to lack of awareness of where to go or available resources in their country. And some families endure years – even decades – of watching their children grow up to experience the painful bullying and isolation associated with living with an untreated cleft condition.

But even with their early exposure to the reassurance and support of Operation Smile Bolivia’s local medical team, nothing could prepare the new parents for the impact of seeing Jack’s smile for the first time.

Loved by his entire family and friends and neighbours in Santa Cruz, Jack was surrounded by people who were prepared to do whatever was necessary to ensure a better future. And when he was first brought to an Operation Smile Bolivia programme, he was once again surrounded by people devoted to changing his life.

At 1 month old, Jack was too young to safely receive surgery, but volunteers fitted him with a feeding plate, which is a dental device that covers a patient’s cleft palate to help them feed with ease and remain strong and healthy enough during the months leading up surgery.

Although América felt saddened that Jack couldn’t receive surgery yet, she left the programme feeling confident in the local volunteer team and comforted by the fact that she was not alone. After several months of waiting, the day Felipe and América had been hoping for finally arrived.

Back in the care of Operation Smile volunteers, Jack passed his comprehensive health evaluation and was deemed healthy enough to undergo anaesthesia. For Felipe and América, despite the trust they’d placed in the volunteers, they couldn’t prevent the anxiety and worry from sinking in as they waited to see Jack’s new smile on surgery day.

Fear gave way to joy and relief when the family was reunited once again. On that day, one surgery changed the lives of three people.

Jack now feeds without difficulty and no longer requires a feeding plate. Their community was thrilled with his new smile and loves watching Jack laugh freely and continue to grow.

The transformation from a cleft repair surgery is seen immediately, but it wasn’t the end of Jack’s cleft care journey with Operation Smile Bolivia. A few months later, he was scheduled to receive his second surgery to repair his cleft palate.

In 2020, the pandemic interrupted Jack’s kindergarten classes, but Operation Smile Bolivia remained committed to providing patients like him with health that lasts. Staying in contact with the local volunteer team, Jack, Felipe and America embraced his ongoing care through virtual therapy sessions that worked to improve his speech.

A healthier and brighter future awaits for this loving family.  “We will be forever grateful,” América said.

Change a life today

Jack and his family received the vital support to help him thrive and grow strong to have his cleft surgery. You can help more families like Jack’s.

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 our patients, their families and our volunteers 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.