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Saturday, 6 June 2020


How I created new smiles during my visit to Smile Train Africa

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EACH year, approximately 1 in 700 babies are born with a cleft lip and/or palate globally. If left untreated, these babies will grow up to experience difficulties with eating, hearing, breathing, and speaking. Having an untreated cleft can also impact their mental wellbeing, with many likely to fall victim of bullying or be ostracised from their community – leaving them with little or no self-esteem, and feelings of social anxiety. 

In order to tackle this worldwide issue, at Smile Train we empower local medical professionals with the training, funding and resources that are needed to provide free cleft surgery and comprehensive cleft care – so that they can help those living with untreated clefts in their communities.

In celebration of Cleft Lip & Palate Awareness Week – which falls during the month of May – we invited our UK Fundraising Director, Ian Vallance, to share some memories from his recent trip to Kenya, where he had a behind-the-scenes look at the life-changing work Smile Train is carrying out for the cleft community in Africa.

‘In October 2019, I embarked on a life-changing trip to Kenya, where I spent three days shadowing Smile Train’s amazing Africa team. I have lots of special memories from the trip, but there were three stand-out moments which I will remember and cherish forever.

‘Upon arriving in the city of Nairobi, I was greeted by my colleagues, Dr Esther Njoroge-Muriithi, who is Smile Train Africa’s Vice President and Regional Director, and Joseph Kariuki, who locates people living with untreated clefts, and educates them about Smile Train. We set off from the city centre on a lengthy four-and-a-half-hour drive, to reach Makueni District Hospital which was located in a very rural town.

‘When we arrived, I could see there were around 20 cleft patients and their families at the hospital, from babies to toddlers to young adults, all waiting to receive their 100% free cleft surgery. One of the patients was 17-year-old Ndindai, who was waiting to undergo surgery for her cleft lip. Ndindai had travelled for an incredible 10 hours – along with her baby, elderly grandmother, and aunt – to get to the hospital after hearing about Smile Train, so that she could finally have her cleft treated. Her family were ‘nomadic’ and part of the Massai tribe, so they had never heard of Smile Train – which is why she hadn’t received treatment up until this point.

‘Ndindai’s surgery took place in the morning and only lasted about 45 minutes. Her family kindly asked me to join them in the ward as she came around from the anaesthesia, and I could tell immediately by her waking expression that this surgery meant so much. I was hugged and thanked by all the family as they celebrated her transformation, even though I had no involvement in the surgery – which was truly touching.

‘It seems ludicrous that this young girl and her family had to travel so far and so long, for a surgery that only takes as little as 45 minutes – however, in such a vast region where not all hospitals are able to treat clefts, this was the best option she had.

‘On the second day of my trip, I travelled another five hours with Esther and Joseph on a treacherous road to another rural village called Shompale. This was home to an extraordinary young boy named Johana, who had recently undergone cleft surgery at a local Smile Train partner hospital. 

‘Johana was born with a cleft lip which was left untreated until the age of eight. Sadly, his cleft resulted in relentless teasing about his appearance from his classmates, which had a very detrimental effect on Johana, turning school from a safe and happy haven to a place of fear and torment.

‘The bullying soon became insufferable for Johana and his social anxiety led him to hide his mouth whenever he was out in public. Johana began to isolate himself from his peers, and became very shy, refusing to speak to others – this led to his teachers incorrectly diagnosing him with a learning disability, affecting his education.

‘I learnt that when Johana’s mother discovered Smile Train, they immediately travelled to the nearest local Smile Train partner hospital to seek treatment. After a short 45-minute surgery, his cleft was completely repaired – leaving him with a new forever smile.

‘Since his surgery, Johana has a newfound confidence – which I was lucky enough to witness when he spent the afternoon with myself and the Smile Train Africa team. We were greeted by the most fantastic, bubbly young boy, who enthusiastically told us stories about school and spending time with his friends. It was incredibly rewarding to see just how impactful Smile Train’s work had been on his life, and I have no doubt that he has a very bright future ahead of him.

‘During my third and final day with the Smile Train Africa team, we spent some time in Nairobi with employees from GSK Consumer Healthcare – who have a global partnership with Smile Train. We joined GSK workers on the streets of the city as they handed out care packages and A5 leaflets, to help raise awareness for Smile Train and the free cleft care services the organisation provides.

‘During this time, we came across an elderly man who was completely overcome with emotion after reading the leaflet we handed him. He soon told us that his brother was born with a cleft and that he had reached adulthood without having it treated because he wasn’t aware that surgery was an option for him.

‘As I watched the man hurry off to share the news with his brother and family, it dawned on me; there’s so much more to what we do at Smile Train than meets the eye. We reach out to communities from all areas of the continent, no matter how vast or rural they may be. We spread the word about our partner hospitals so that people with clefts hear that there are skilled medical professionals available to treat them. We raise awareness of the cleft condition so that people become more understanding of it.

‘Experiencing first-hand the energy and tenacity that goes into finding cleft patients and getting them to the hospital makes the work that we do feel so special. To date, we have supported more than 1.5 million surgeries at Smile Train, and I’m delighted to know that because of the hard work from our local team in Africa and in other regions around the world, we are providing the best standard and quality of care for those who need it the most.’

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