A True Journey of Smiles

Bosawas Jungle, Nicaragua—It’s not every day a man is willing to travel almost 175 hours, by air, land, and water, to make sure a patient receives cleft care, but that is exactly what Smile Train friend, Martin, did.

While on a short-term assignment in the Bosawas Jungle in Nicaragua, Martin Rojas met a nine-month-old with a cleft lip and palate, Queben Spelman. Because the little boy was from so deep inside the jungle, there was no knowledge of cleft, let alone treatment. Even if there had been, Queben’s mother, Bertalina, could not afford the surgery. There was no hope for Queben, until Martin came along.

After meeting Queben, Martin vowed to return to collect the infant and his mother so that Queben’s cleft could be repaired and five months later Martin fulfilled his promise.

“Having traveled all over the world and seeing dying children due to malnutrition, especially exacerbated by a cleft lip and palate and the subsistence, survival of the fittest, jungle living in which Queben lived, my biggest concern was that he would not be alive when I returned,” Martin said.

Martin’s journey started in Dallas, Texas. From there he landed in Managua, Nicaragua, drove about 12 hours (400 km) past where the road ended until driving became impossible. Then, Martin made a 23-hour journey via dugout canoe through three different rivers, spanning 200 km, to reach Queben and his mother in the heart of the jungle.

There was little rest upon arrival as Martin wanted to get Queben to the hospital as soon as possible as the little boy was suffering from malnutrition, due to his cleft, and was very ill.

“At 10 pounds and 12 ounces fully clothed and 24.4 inches long at 15 months old and not able to stand on his own. He was in awful shape, but alive!” Martin said.

With Queben and Bertalina this time in tow, Martin made his way out of the jungle and to the nearest Smile Train hospital in Leon, Nicaragua, which was just as grueling a journey.

Once at the hospital Queben was treated for malnutrition. He was there for about a month and half before he was healthy enough for surgery. During this time Bertalina proved herself to be a brave woman having never been out of the jungle or around any electrical appliances, cars, or elevators. The Smile Train team had to show Bertalina what a light switch was used for and how to use a faucet for she had never had electricity or running water.

After proper nourishment, Queben was able to receive his cleft lip and palate surgery. Once Queben recovered from surgery, Martin returned from Texas to bring the family back to their village in the jungle. Although a huge sacrifice, Martin was repaid by the happiness of Bertalina.

“Words can not express the immeasurable joy and peace written on the mother’s face. Her smile could not be contained for the joy in her heart at seeing her sickly son, on the verge of death, being brought back to life and given a second chance,” Martin wrote after returning from Nicaragua.


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