Love at First Sight and Beyond

Sule Alhassan (46) and his wife Lami (36) share their joyful anticipation with Oral Health Advocacy Initiative's chief surgeon, Dr. Ver-or,  before their cleft surgery.

Sule Alhassan (46, middle) and his wife Lami (36) share their joyful anticipation with Oral Health Advocacy Initiative’s chief surgeon, Dr. Ver-or, before their cleft surgery.

Adamawa, Nigeria—Many Smile Train patients are only able to fall in love and marry after they receive surgery. Whether it be the stigma, shame, or any other item on the laundry list of negative feelings associated with cleft, these emotions prevent those with unrepaired clefts from experiencing one of the most universal milestones—marriage.

For Sule Alhassan, 46 years old, and his wife Lami, 36 years old, though, having a cleft is what brought them together. Hailing from Adamawa state in Northeastern Nigeria, the couple was among 30 other cleft patients being treated during Smile Train partner Oral Health Advocacy Initiative’s cleft week last month.

Sule (top) and Lami before and after their surgeries.

Sule (top) and Lami before and after their surgeries.

The two met when Sule saw Lami while working as a gatekeeper for the local hospital—it was his first day on the job. Lami at the time was a beggar, stigmatized because of her cleft. Sule recalls their first meeting with much joy. He said he was instantly attracted to Lami for her beauty and because she shared something in common with him. Not long after their first meeting Sule proposed marriage. The couple have been married for 16 years and have 13 children! Through nine pregnancies Lami has delivered one set of triplets, two sets of twins, and has had six single births. None of the children were born with a cleft.

Living in an area of Nigeria where the average person makes a little less than four dollars a day and raising 13 children, the couple never imagined they would be able to have their clefts repaired because of the cost. Thanks to the generous Smile Train donors and doctors they were able to get the surgery they had waited decades for.

Both Sule and Lami had successful surgeries and are excited about their new look, new smile, and new life.

Smile of the Week Obumneme Nwakpoke Update

Smile Train Smile of the Week Obumneme Nwakpoke

Abuja, Nigeria — Two weeks ago, four-year-old Obumneme Nwakpoke was our Smile of the Week. Our local Smile Train partner Ebonyi State University Teaching Hospital saw Obumneme’s “SOTW” pictures and recently reached out to us with a short update.

Obumneme was discharged a few days after his surgery and was brought home by his parents, Christopher and Grace. Obumneme is the second oldest of four, and his two brothers and sister were excited when he returned home, and even more so when they saw his new smile.

He has returned to his nursery school and his classmates no longer tease him about his lip. He’s making a lot of friends with his bright smile and happy, outgoing personality. While his parents were a little hesitant about what they let him eat when he first returned home, since he has healed, he has started eating his favorite food again: yams.

His parents wanted to thank the doctors, staff, donors, and everyone else who helped give Obumneme a new smile. On their behalf, and on behalf of all of our patients and their families, thank you to our wonderful partner doctors, hospital staff, and donors for giving so many children like Obumneme a second chance at life.

The Importance of Awareness

Kano, Nigeria – Within moments of giving birth, Mariya Habibu went from the extreme joy of seeing her daughter Fadima for the first time to absolute heartbreak. Fadima was born with a unilateral cleft lip. Having grown up seeing others with unrepaired clefts, Mariya knew just how tough her new daughter’s life would be. She was devastated to think of how the stigma associated with cleft would impact her daughter for the rest of her life.

Fadima Habibu before cleft lip surgeryBefore this forlorn sense of doom settled into her heart, Mariya was given a lifeline by the midwife that delivered Fadima into the world. She told Mariya that if she traveled from her village to the city, Fadima could receive free cleft surgery to repair her disfigurement. The midwife even told her where to go: Smile Train partner Grass-root Smile Initiative at the Armed Forces Specialist Hospital, Kano.

Not wasting any time, Mariya borrowed money from her friends and neighbors to travel to Kano and on the third day of her life, Fadima was in front of Smile Train partner surgeons. Standard medical practice dictates that a cleft lip surgery should be performed at age 3 months, not 3 days. The hospital staff explained to Mariya that she would need to wait for her daughter to grow strong enough for the surgery. After educating her how to properly feed Fadima and on vaccinations her baby would need, the staff sent her home with a follow up date.

Mariya and Fadima Habibu after Fadima's free cleft lip surgerySure enough, Mariya arrived early to make sure that the doctors hadn’t forgotten about little Fadima. Fadima received free cleft surgery later that day. When Mariya and Fadima were discharged, Mariya gave her undying thanks to the Smile Train doctors, medical staff, and “all of the nice people who she would never meet” that paid for her daughter’s surgery. She promised to continue to tell everyone she came across that clefts are not a curse and that they can be repaired for free, just as her midwife had done months before.

Most Memorable: Abiodun Sunday

Ido-Ekiti, NigeriaWhile Smile Train partners provide over 300 surgeries a day worldwide, there are always a few patients that stand out in their minds. Children who leave a mark on the doctors and nurses for a determination in their eyes, a heartrending story, a gentle squeeze of the hand, or any of the infinite little moments that strike something deep within our hearts and stay with us forever. Recently, we asked some of our partner hospitals to share some of their most memorable stories over the years. The staff of Federal Medical Centre Ido-Ekiti in Nigeria shared the story of Abiodun Sunday, which they consider to be their proudest moment of being a Smile Train partner.

“We had the skills, but not the resources to provide cleft surgery to poor patients.”

Abiodun with cleft lip before visiting Smile Train partnerWhen Abiodun Sunday was born, his father abandoned his family due to his son’s cleft lip, leaving his wife without any income to take care of their son. Luckily, the hospital staff were able to convince her that Abiodun’s cleft was not an evil omen or a curse, but an easily corrected birth defect and that she should bring him to a hospital when he was big enough for surgery. Abiodun first came to the Federal Medical Centre Ido-Ekiti as an 8-month old infant in February 2007 cradled in his mother’s arms. The doctors reaffirmed her hope that her son could lead a normal life after cleft surgery, but that hope shattered like glass when they told her the cost. An unemployed, single mother who bent over backwards to simply feed her son, she would never be able to save enough to afford the surgery her son needed.

The hospital’s cleft team had the skills to provide excellent cleft care, but they lacked the resources to be able to provide it to poor patients. Despite her pleas, they did not have the money to provide Abiodun with his surgery and had to turn her away.

That was before Federal Medical Centre Ido-Ekiti became a Smile Train Partner.

Cleft Patient Abiodun before Smile Train SurgeryBy the end of 2008, FMC Ido-Ekiti had passed all criteria and been approved as a Smile Train partner, providing its first Smile Train sponsored surgeries in early 2009. Meanwhile, Abiodun’s mother had been determined to make sure that her son lived as normal a life as possible, fighting hard to protect him from the stares of strangers and taunts that he was too young to understand. But she knew that if he was going to be normal, in a few years he would have to go to school, where she would not be able to protect him. Luckily, one day at her local market, a stranger’s stare changed everything when a good Samaritan told her about an advertisement he saw that through Smile Train the very hospital she had visited before was providing free cleft surgeries to patients that coudn’t afford to pay for it themselves.

With faith restored, his mother returned to the hospital. The staff screened the oddly familiar young boy and, to their astonishment, they were able to pull up Abiodun’s old record. On August 20, 2009, Abiodun woke up from general anesthesia with a new smile thanks to Smile Train donors and the skilled hands of Dr. Babatunde Aregbesola and his staff who were finally able to fulfill a promise of hope two years in the making.

Cleft Lip Patient Abiodun Sunday after Smile Train Surgery

In Their Own Words

We just got a report back from Sacred Heart Hospital, located in the city of Lantoro, Nigeria. At the end of the report, after all the stats, safety reports and signatures, were these notes written by actual patients.

We thought you’d like to see them: to read in their own words how these four lives have been changed thanks to your donations and the dedication of the team at Sacred Heart.

Smile Train patient note - age 7

Adenuyl, age 7

Note from Smile Train patient, Haruna

Haruna, age 14

Note from Smile Train patient, age 10

Bamgbose, age 10

Note from Smile Train patient, age 21

Rashidat, age 21

Smile Train Conference in India Underway

Hyderabad, India – Coming all the way from Nigeria, Nkeiruka Obi (NK for short) our new Program Manager of West Africa, met her counterparts for the first time. Under the guidance of expert Smile Train partner Dr. Subodh (of Smile Pinki fame), NK witnessed a cleft examination at a special conference designed to bring together the international Smile Train team and set forth a structural plan for the coming years.

NK is responsible for bolstering our programs throughout Western Africa, a hard task considering the lack of trained surgeons and deeprooted superstitions in many of the countries she will be working in. NK remains undaunted in her task of growing Smile Train’s programs and is determined to make the most of her time in Hyderabad and learn more about the successful expansion of our Indian programs over the last decade and take their best practices back to Nigeria.

As NK pointed out in an email a few days onto the job, dismissing the myths and stigmas associated with clefts is the first step to making sure every child can smile.

 “I just got back from the South West Region, and to my utmost, shock discovered that children with clefts are still being condemned to a lifetime of isolation and suffering in that part of the country, some even abandoned or killed. In fact, it is incredible.

On my way, the taxi driver was stopped by the local govt. ‘boys’ to produce his state driver’s licence…which of course was not available as we were coming from Lagos. After much pleading, they told the guy to pay N42000 before they can let us go. At that point, I had to step in.  I shared with them the mission of Smile Train  and gave them a copy of our flier. Immediately, one of them confessed that this was news to them as from where they are from the belief is that clefts are monsters or rabbits in human form that shouldn’t be allowed to live….fortunately one of them had a brother that had a cleft. With the revelation that a cleft can be corrected and now at no cost, I gave him the contact details of our partners in the SW.”

Thanks to an attempted bribery, of all things, one more patient whose community thought that he was a monster will be receiving surgery and a new life. You can be sure that he’ll be spreading this great news to everyone he can, helping us dispell the local superstitions and help even more patients. With NK’s help, we plan to greatly expand our programs throughout Africa and reach every child with a cleft.