Abu Dhabi: Jared Laraga was the most beautiful baby to his parents, but as he grew, they couldn’t help but worry about how he would cope. Born with a cleft lip and palate, Jared had an obvious facial deformity that could invite taunts from strangers.
But a free surgery at 11 months of age has corrected the visible cleft lip, and his parents cannot express their joy and gratitude enough.
“I have heard my son babble a little before this, but now I cannot wait to hear him utter his first words,” April Decano, Jared’s 29-year-old mother from the Philippines, told Gulf News.
“We found out about Jared’s cleft conditions when I was 22 weeks pregnant, and although we were delighted to become parents, we did find ourselves worrying about how he would cope with the outside world. This gift from Operation Smile and its supporters has been the most wonderful thing for us,” Decano added.
Jared was one of the 20 individuals who underwent free cleft correction surgeries last month at Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi as part of Operation Smile’s first UAE mission. The organisation, which was formed in 1982 to help children with cleft conditions, has been operating in the UAE since 2011. Within the UAE, it has collected funds for 16 missions in other countries that helped 3,500 children, including patients in Jordan, Ethiopia and the Philippines.
But Operation Smile UAE’s executive director, Moraq Cromey-Hawke, said the need for a UAE mission became apparent.
“When we started operating here, the UAE was simply designated as a resource country to fundraise for international efforts. But we soon came to know that there were affected individuals who could not afford the surgery here,” she said.
After announcing the UAE mission, the organisation screened 36 affected individuals, selecting 20 expatriate patients, including from Somalia, Yemen, Pakistan, the Philippines and India, for the free corrective surgeries. The transformative procedures are covered under the Thiqa insurance plans for Emiratis, but insurance plans held by most expatriates do not have similar provisions.
“We looked into getting the surgeries for Jared. But they would cost between Dh37,000 and Dh50,000. How could we afford that when our monthly earnings are only about Dh5,000?” Decano said.
Cleft lips and palates are orofacial congenital birth defects that affect the upper lip and the roof of the mouth. Cleft lips appear as a gap in the skin of the upper lip, and cleft palates are splits or openings in the roof of the mouth. Affecting one in every 700 babies on average, these deformities create difficulties in eating and speech, or result in frequent ear infections and dental problems.
With Jared, breastfeeding was not possible, and he required a special teat to be bottle-fed for the first three months. Still, the milk would sometimes spill through his nostrils.
For Abdul Nasser, the surgery has been even more life-changing. His mother, Hawa Abdul Rahman, a single parent from Somalia, said her only child has never been able to eat solid foods, despite being two years old.
“He could only manage liquid or puréed food, and even this would often spill from his mouth. He has also not learnt to speak, and I am so grateful that we were chosen to benefit from these free surgeries,” said Abdul Rahman, who works as a part-time school canteen worker.
Dr Eeva-Liisa Langille, consultant paediatrician at Plus International Medical Centre in Abu Dhabi, said the effects of cleft conditions can be quite varied. She was one of nearly 200 medical professionals who volunteered for the Operation Smile mission.
“Children’s nutritional needs may not be met, and this is the primary concern after birth. Afterwards, speech can be difficult, especially as the tongue can get stuck in the gap between the palates,” she explained. In addition, patients also tend to face social barriers.
“Even children who learn to speak may feel shy from being stared at or teased, and this has a negative impact on their confidence levels. As part of this mission, we also operated on two young men in their twenties with cleft conditions, and it was heart-warming to see how much it meant to them,” the doctor said.
Zach Guarino, a month shy of his first birthday, has been playing with his lips since he underwent the surgery last month. He also appears somewhat puzzled upon seeing his reflection in the mirror, said his mother, Bernadette Guarino, a 36-year-old Filipina.
“I have three older girls, but Zach is our only son and we were very stressed to hear about his cleft conditions after a prenatal ultrasound. After he was born, I was unable to breastfeed him like I had done for my daughters, so I decided to pump and give him my milk,” Guarino said.
“Even though I had got around this early feeding hurdle, and Zach gained weight normally, I was always worried about how Zach would manage in school. Not all children are sensitive, so what would he do when he got teased?” she added.
Guarino had known about Operation Smile, and was very happy to have been approached for their first mission.
“My son’s cleft lip has been corrected, and it’s such a joy for us. The doctors have told us he will need another procedure to correct his cleft palate after he is 18 months old, and I hope we will be able to get this (done) for him too,” the mother said.