The moment when a mother sees her newborn baby for the first time is a joyous, special occasion. However, sometimes there are instances when that special moment is followed by uncertainty and pain. As a volunteer for Operation Smile, I have experienced the joy and the heartbreak that comes with this type of work. It's a painful experience for me to hear the stories of mothers who see their children for the first time, only to realize their babies were born with facial deformities such as cleft lips or cleft palates.
Whanda's story is one that begins with this kind of doubt and fear. After almost 30 hours of labor, 18-year-old Whanda lost consciousness while giving birth to her first and only daughter, Yuleyssy, in a hospital in Chinandega, Nicaragua.
When she came to two days later, Whanda took one look at her husband's face and knew that something was wrong. "I wanted to know if she was alive," Whanda says. "I heard someone say 'better that she is not.' I did not understand".
When Whanda first saw her tiny daughter she recalls feeling shocked and very sad, although she was unaware that Yuleyssy had been born with a bilateral cleft lip. "No one explained why she looked different," said Whanda. "No one said it could be fixed."
The couple left the hospital scared and confused, but certain that they would love and care for this baby no matter what. "I saw the people stare at my baby when we left the hospital," recalls Whanda. "I knew then that I needed to love my baby enough for everyone else because no one else would love her but me and my husband."
Many mothers of children born with cleft lip and cleft palate experience the same fear and uncertainty as Whanda every day. Every three minutes, a child somewhere in the world is born with a cleft.
But thanks to the efforts of Operation Smile medical volunteers, there are thousands of children who receive the gift of a smile every year. Operation Smile is an international children's medical charity that works in more than 60 countries to provide free, safe reconstructive surgery for children and young adults born with cleft lip, cleft palate or other facial deformities. Through the generosity of our partners like Ethicon and Johnson & Johnson, Operation Smile is able to heal waiting children who have otherwise lost hope. We currently have teams on-site around the world, providing free surgeries for children -- but we can't do this life changing work alone.
We all work together to make these dreams a reality. Every piece of the puzzle is crucial. From the student volunteers raising awareness in their schools, to the donors who support our missions through monetary contributions, to the more than 5,000 medical volunteers ready and willing to provide their time and talents to help these children, to the tiny suture that heals the smile of a child forever.
Thanks in part to Operation Smile, Yuleyssy's story has a happy ending. Whanda and her husband made the journey to Chinandega to join Operation Smile Nicaragua's surgical mission. When little Yuleyssy was carried from surgery and placed into her mother's arms in the recovery room, Whanda recalls her tears of joy. "It was happy crying. She was beautiful."