Two Thumbs-Up

Nine-year-old Bipul during patient announcement day at Operation Smile’s 2018 medical mission in Durgapur, India. Photo: Jasmin Shah.

After loving and raising three daughters together, Nioti and her husband, Monbula, remained hopeful that they would finally welcome a son into their family.

When Nioti gave birth to their fourth child, Bipul, during the early hours of one winter night, she and Monbula were overjoyed to see that their prayers had been answered: Their first son was born.

But instead of feeling relief and excitement on the day of Bipul’s birth, the family was overcome with great pain when they looked at their only boy and saw that he was born with a cleft lip.

Lacking proper knowledge on the actual causes of cleft, which can be environmental or hereditary, Monbula and Nioti believed that Bipul’s cleft condition was a punishment from the gods due to the influence of a lunar eclipse during her pregnancy.

While some people believed Bipul to be “polluted” because of his cleft lip, Nioti had a love for her son that outweighed everything else.

“My fate was to have this baby,” Nioti said.

Monbula and Nioti learned about the possibility of surgery on the same day that Bipul was born. And while they didn’t know what Bipul’s future held, they were confident that their son would one day receive the care they knew he needed and deserved.

And when the family learned that free surgery was possible in the nearby town of Odisha, it seemed as though that day had arrived.

But for 3-year-old Bipul, the idea of leaving home frightened him. And so, his family decided not to go, resulting in Bipul having to continue living with an unrepaired cleft.

As Bipul grew older and started going to school, the teasing and name-calling he received from some of his peers became almost too much for him to bear. He would often come home crying due to the harmful abuse he endured throughout the day. In an attempt to comfort her son, Nioti would tell Bipul that he would one day receive surgery that would repair his cleft lip and change his life.

When Bipul was 9 years old, the surgery his mother always talked about didn’t feel too far away after Operation Smile hosted an awareness event in their village for an upcoming medical mission in Durgapur.

This time, Bipul wasn’t afraid.

He even said that, if he had to, he would travel on his own to reach the mission. As if all the fear that once held him back had vanished, Bipul bravely made the journey with his family toward a new smile.

Bipul with his mother, Nioti, as they wait for his surgery to repair his cleft lip. Photo: Jasmin Shah.

At every stage of the mission, whether it was receiving a health evaluation or waiting during patient announcement day, Bipul had a huge smile on his face as he gave two thumbs-up to anyone who passed by.

Bipul’s courage helped him not only face the unfamiliar environment of the mission, but also connect with other patients and volunteers at the hospital.

Seven-year-old Monu and Bipul pose for a photo during patient announcement day. Photo: Jasmin Shah.

Seven-year-old Monu – whose family also learned about the mission at the same awareness event – was one patient in particular who formed a strong bond with Bipul.

While living with a cleft condition can put a child’s life in jeopardy with an increased risk of illness and malnutrition, it can also lead to a life of loneliness and isolation due to the harmful stigmatisation.

For Monu and Bipul, they’d lived five minutes away from each other their entire lives – but never met each other until that day at the mission.

Monu’s parents, Santosh and Bina, knew that their son wasn’t the only child living with a cleft condition. But as they looked around the mission site, they were shocked to see the number of families who had arrived in Durgapur seeking out safe surgical care for their children.

Bipul and Monu play together as they wait to receive their cleft lip surgeries. Photo: Jasmin Shah.

After they passed their comprehensive health evaluations, Bipul and Monu stayed near each other throughout the mission, playing happily together in the child life area before their surgeries. Taking after his older companion, Monu also began giving a thumbs-up to the volunteers and staff members he met. Later during the mission, the Operation Smile medical team healed the smiles of the new friends, who remained close even after returning home.

With a safe surgery from Operation Smile, a patient’s future becomes brighter. Not only does a child get the opportunity to go to school and make friends without fear of bullying, but they also gain a newfound confidence to chase after a dream that they once feared would never come true.

Monu’s dream is to become a police officer. Bipul wants to continue receiving an education and eventually learn to speak English.

For Monu and Bipul, a condition that often prevents people from building relationships ended up uniting two unlikely friends.

Monu and Bipul one year after receiving surgery from Operation Smile. Photo: Jasmin Shah.