The Unsung Hero’s Journey

July holds a special meaning for the AfS community. For those who are not yet aware, July was National Cleft and Craniofacial Awareness and Prevention Month – an opportunity to focus a spotlight on the struggles and hardships that clefts can induce, as well as the people impacted by it.

Our team likes to emphasize that cleft surgery is not purely cosmetic. In a multitude of countries, there are severe and potentially life-threatening stigmas surrounding those with cleft. Children are abandoned by family members, made out to be social pariahs, hidden away, ostracized, and sometimes even killed because of their cleft lips and palates.This past July we commemorated Cleft Awareness Month to highlight the unsung heroes in our cleft patient lives. Some unsung heroes are family members who have taken abandoned cleft children in when parents had turned their backs on them. As our anesthesiologist, Steven Lin, shared – one of his most memorable stories with AfS, “was when an old couple found a cleft female baby in a dumpster and raised her. They brought her to AfS for repair”. Other unsung heroes are families who provide unconditional love for their child, going above and beyond to ensure their children have a chance at a better life. As Steven remembers, “there are other stories where parents walk for days to get to the treatment site so they can get their child treated”.

A few other unsung heroes we highlighted are members of our AfS team, as well as local medical staff at our partner sites and volunteers from around the world. Our AfS operations team works behind the scenes to orchestrate surgical missions, spread awareness, and raise funds, while our medical teams work on the frontlines to create beautiful, healthy smiles for children. Teams that deserve just as much recognition are the local medical staff and volunteers who attend Virtual Education Initiative (VEI) sessions and work alongside AfS to provide the most comprehensive and life-changing treatment possible. Anyone who helps a child with cleft receive the surgery they need is a hero in that child’s story and journey. Thank you to everyone who has helped support AfS in our journey to create smiles around the world.

Every patient has a memorable story; here are some that stood out to our AfS team members. These are stories that highlight unsung heroes as told by the unsung heroes themselves.

David Fowler, Photographer:

“There was a 26 yr old mother, Asma, who came to our clinic in Dhaka, Bangladesh with her 3-month old daughter…both had clefts. We were unable to help the daughter because of her underlying conditions, but Dr. Hauge was able to repair Asma’s lip and palate, and I was fortunate to be with her when Dr. Hauge completed his examination and said she could go home. Through the translator, Asma thanked him and said… ‘Because of what you have done, my husband has kissed me for the first time.’ I still cry when I think of how we changed her life”.

Mary Jensen, Dental Hygienist:

“There are so many stories and kids that are really cemented in my mind. I feel that when I provide oral hygiene education to a mom or dad of a young child I am helping to set the stage for good oral health for that child—and family. I try and provide everyone with a new toothbrush. I enjoy seeing children for their first-ever dental cleaning.”

Kathy Reece, PACU Nurse:

“I remember so many children, but one I still remember was a family whose mother and daughter had cleft lips. The mother who was around 45 had never had an opportunity to have hers repaired. We repaired both the mother and daughter. I can still remember the mother who had talked with her hand over her face for so many years now has a beautiful smile just like her daughter’s.”

Story by Mia Shao