Kigali, Rwanda — Smile Train Program Manager, East Africa, Dr. Esther Nyambura Njoroge sent us this very touching account of a mother and her a newborn daughter who came in for free cleft surgery.
This week am in Rwanda for a Smile Train outreach. Smile Train is a charity organization dedicated to offering Free reconstruction surgery for cleft lip and palate babies. We are going to change peoples lives here, one smile at a time.
So this morning I [walk] into the hospital, all ready to be my usual charming self, and I go about reviewing the patients who have shown up today. Looking into their hopeful faces, one cant help but feel emotional-even the very cold-hearted. Patient one to ten are fantastic-right age, no obvious infections, ready for surgery after some lab tests. Then I reach patient 11 and my heart lurches. I will call her Tammy*. She is a beautiful little girl and am sure she will be a show stopper some day. She is very tiny and has an NG tube-this is a tube that is passed from the nose to the stomach for delivery of food or milk when someone is not able to feed for one reason or another. I remember how delicate a procedure it used to be to fix those back in ward 3D (Kenyatta National Hospital). Basically the tube ensures that food reaches its destination.
The mother is beside herself, a very sad look on her face. I inquire about the baby and learn that she is only 28 days old, and the tube was fixed at the hospital she was born at. The mother bursts into tears and mine follow. I step back and look away-surely a patient should not see me cry! Since I started working with cleft babies I find my tear threshold has shifted significantly, I guess it comes with the job description. When I regain my composure I ask her why she is crying and she retorts in a torrent of Kinyarwanda that I surely cannot understand. The nurse with me translates — her husband left her the day Tammy was born and has not returned since. She is all on her own with her two children and she pleads that we help her baby, if only so that the bread winner of her home can return. He blames her for the deformity, saying her body was impure and thus the resulting baby. His family shunned her and she had to move back with her mother, a great disgrace in her community.
Tears sting my eyes again but I resist. I think of my own daughter and am broken. Am broken because Tammy is too young for surgery yet. We cannot operate on her now due to safety issues. But, there is a lot we can do for this mother, we can give her hope and this is part of my job. So I patiently talk to her and the nurse translates in the language Tammy’s mother understands best. Together we counsel her on feeding the baby, and the reasons why we should wait until Tammy is three months old. Slowly, as we repeat the information over and over, her face brightens and I notice a change in the look in her eye, she is hopeful. Tammy will have her surgery in two months time, and that look will definitely change to joy. I know it.
At times like this, it’s really hard…but we march on changing the world one smile at a time.
*Tammy is not her real name.