Then His Name Was Called

Patient Stories
Photo: Sabrina Ghiddi.
Photo: Sabrina Ghiddi.

As John sat quietly amid the bustling atmosphere of patient screening day at an Operation Smile medical mission to Cape Coast, Ghana, he looked down at the orange sticker on his shirt that a volunteer had given him.

Written on it was the number “351.”

A sinking feeling washed over the 26-year-old man, who suffered from a cleft lip. He assumed the number was the order in which patients would be selected for surgery. Also, John had already noticed that his cleft lip was less severe than most of the children around him.

This made him certain that he would be denied the chance to receive surgery – a feeling he knew all too well. John had nearly lost hope as the hours slowly passed toward the end of the day.

Suddenly, John heard someone call out his name and number. A volunteer told John that his 12-year wait for cleft surgery would come to an end in just three days. He had passed his comprehensive health evaluation and was selected to receive the procedure that had eluded him for all those years.

In an instant, John’s desperation transformed into pure happiness.

However, he had to endure a lifetime of emotional hardship before surgery from Operation Smile would change his life.

John was born in a remote and impoverished village in rural Ghana – a tight-knit community where no one had ever seen a cleft condition before.

Unlike so many of Operation Smile’s patients, who are often treated as outcasts, John was unconditionally loved by his parents and accepted by most of his neighbors.

While he was fortunate to grow up in a protective environment, John felt socially isolated and longed deeply to look like his peers. As a result, he hated going to school; the faces of his classmates constantly reminded him of his condition. His self-confidence suffered and eventually he decided to drop out of middle school.

It wasn’t until he was 14 years old that John learned from a friend that surgery could repair his cleft lip, but it would be far more expensive than he or his family could afford. The news inspired John to save money so that he could one day receive surgery. He worked as many odd jobs that he could, but there was very little money to be earned in the poor village.

It wouldn’t be until John was 21 years old that he was able to save 1,000 cedi ($226), a relatively enormous amount that he was sure would cover the cost of surgery. After seven years of sacrificing what little pay he could earn, he traveled to the nearest hospital with the hope that his lip would finally be repaired.

When he arrived, the hospital staff delivered devastating news. The money John had saved would only cover half of the cost of surgery. The thought of saving for another seven years was disheartening. At that moment, John lost hope that he would ever look like his neighbors.

Four years after John’s visit, his older brother, Gabriel, fell ill and sought treatment at the same hospital. While there, Gabriel saw posters promoting an upcoming Operation Smile medical mission to Cape Coast, where the organization would be providing surgeries for people with cleft like his brother – and it wouldn’t cost them a single cedi.

When Gabriel told John about Operation Smile and the Cape Coast mission, John was ecstatic and his hope for a new smile was renewed.

Using the information from the posters, John contacted Sabrina Ghiddi, Operation Smile’s regional manager for western and southern Africa, who told him that a bus owned by Operation Smile would provide free transportation to the mission site for patients and their families – most of whom would never be able to afford bus fare for the trip.

When the medical mission arrived to Cape Coast, John and Gabriel boarded the Operation Smile bus. The seven-hour journey was rough due to the poor condition of the roads, but it paled in comparison to the seven years he sacrificed saving money for a surgery he couldn’t afford.

At the mission, John’s final emotional obstacle proved to be his wait through the tedious hours of screening day. His excitement built over the next three days until Operation Smile medical volunteers repaired his cleft lip with a surgery that lasted less than an hour.

When the final suture was closed, so did the 26 years of anxiety and hardship that John’s cleft had caused him.

Since his surgery, there is so much that makes John smile. No longer working odd jobs to earn money, he now works as an apprentice at an auto repair shop to become a mechanic. His confidence has soared to new heights – so much so that he said he is working up the courage to propose to his girlfriend.

“Thank you, Operation Smile,” John said. “Thanks to you, I am confident, I can make friends and I can go anywhere I want without fear of ridicule.”

Photo: Margherita Mirabella.
Photo: Margherita Mirabella.