A World Smile Day Story

Patient Stories
Photo: Ahmed Ebrahim.
Photo: Ahmed Ebrahim.

Editor’s Note: Last year on World Smile Day, Oct. 7, 2016, Operation Smile began conducting a weeklong medical mission in Tamale, Ghana. One of the patients who received a comprehensive medical evaluation that day was Michael, then a 15-month-old boy born with a cleft lip. Throughout the mission, we learned more about his journey by listening to his mother, Filicia. Their story is one of incredible strength and perseverance, as they had to overcome cultural, financial and physical barriers to seek cleft surgery for Michael. As we celebrate World Smile Day 2017, their story shows that safe surgery can bring not only a new smile to a patient, but also renewed hope for an entire family.

As Filicia lied awake at night, anxiety overwhelmed her.

She tossed and turned, struggling to reason with the obstacles keeping her baby, Michael, from receiving surgery to repair his cleft lip.

At 9 months old, Michael’s condition had made feeding so difficult that he was malnourished the first time he arrived at an Operation Smile medical mission. Doctors decided that surgery would be too risky to perform and he had to be turned away. The devastating news gave way to more heartbreak when Filicia returned home. Some villagers told her that her life would be better if she left Michael for dead in the local dump.

Filicia had to dig deep to find a sense of hope. During those sleepless nights, she knew she could count on two things – that Michael would have another chance at surgery and that she could call on Clement Ofosuhemeng, the patient coordinator for Operation Smile Ghana, for advice and encouragement, no matter the hour.

Though Filicia was heartbroken when she saw Michael’s cleft lip after he was born, the love she felt for her child was unconditional. She knew that surgery could repair Michael’s cleft lip, but she couldn’t afford bus fare to the nearest hospital, let alone the cost of cleft surgery.  

“I cried every day and did not know what to do,” she said.

Shortly after Michael was born, his father abandoned the family. Most people in Filicia’s village either shunned or insulted her and her son. Even members of her own family showed no support. She had only one friend, Cynthia, on whom she could depend.

In many Ghanaian villages such as Filicia’s, the social stigma tied to cleft is deeply-rooted in superstition. It’s widely believed that people born with cleft conditions are cursed by evil spirits rather than affected by a surgically-treatable condition.

However, it wasn’t long after Michael’s birth that Filicia learned about Operation Smile.

She heard about the organization and its work in Ghana from an American who visited her landlord when Michael was a newborn.

Though malnourishment prevented Michael from receiving surgery the first time around, Filicia received instructions on how to properly feed Michael from Dede Kwadjo, a volunteer nutritionist who helps lead Operation Smile Ghana’s nutrition program. Malnutrition is an ever-present health hazard in Ghana that often prevents children from receiving surgery when they are babies. In the six months leading up to the next Operation Smile medical mission in Tamale, Filicia followed Dede’s instructions diligently and Michael grew healthier.

When the time came for Michael and Filicia to travel to Tamale for Michael’s second chance at surgery, the cost of the nine-hour bus ride was provided by Operation Smile Ghana, free of charge.

Just as he did six months earlier, Michael received a comprehensive health evaluation on screening day. This time, Operation Smile medical volunteers determined that Michael was healthy enough to receive surgery. Again, Filicia was overwhelmed by emotion – but this time it was excitement.

The Operation Smile volunteer medical team performed Michael’s cleft lip surgery – a procedure that took as few as 45 minutes brought an end to 15 months of worry and despair for Filicia.

When she saw her son’s new smile for the first time, she cried tears of joy and rejoiced in the recovery room.

Photo: Ahmed Ebrahim.
Photo: Ahmed Ebrahim.
Photo: Ahmed Ebrahim.
Photo: Ahmed Ebrahim.

Filicia said that she expects the villagers that shunned and ridiculed her and her family will feel ashamed of their cruelty when Michael returns home. More importantly, she envisions a bright future for her son. Her dream is that he will thrive in the classroom and one day become a doctor so that he can help people as Operation Smile medical volunteers helped him.

Filled with a renewed sense of hope, Filicia reflected back on those lonely days and nights after that first medical mission and the role Clement played in bringing Michael to Operation Smile’s care.

“Thank you, Clement, for answering my calls at all hours of the day and in the middle of the night to tell me to continue and to not give up,” Filicia said. “When I finally achieved the dream of getting Michael surgery, the words of encouragement from him is what kept me going.”

You can provide new smiles and hope for patients and families like Michael's. Click here to support life-changing cleft surgeries in honor of World Smile Day!

Photo: Ahmed Ebrahim.
Photo: Ahmed Ebrahim.