A Father's Promise Fulfilled

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Along a dusty roadside in the state of Ceará in northern Brazil, Antonia Samia sips a cold drink on a hot day at the local coconut stand with her father and sister.  On this day, the family trio laugh and enjoy the time with one another as they reminisce about the past. In precious moments like these, it’s nearly impossible to imagine a time when there wasn’t much that made Antonia smile.

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Cleft conditions have long haunted Antonia’s family. She represents the fifth straight generation afflicted with the deformity. Iranildo and Antonia’s mother, also named Antonia, were devastated to see their fifth daughter born with a cleft lip, but that paled in comparison to the love they felt for their newborn baby. Unlike so many children born with cleft conditions, Antonia was also very fortunate to be able to breastfeed without difficulty.

However, with a large family to support, there was no way Iranildo could afford surgery for Antonia. Even when he heard about Operation Smile Brazil’s inaugural mission to Fortaleza shortly after Antonia was born, Iranildo couldn’t afford the bus fare nor the time away from the farm. All he could do was offer Antonia a promise that he hoped he could one day fulfil: “I promise I will get it fixed.”

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So while she was fortunate enough to grow up physically healthy, the emotional distress Antonia would experience was inevitable. Once in school, she was relentlessly bullied and tormented by her classmates because of her cleft lip. Often, Antonia would come home from school in tears, telling her mother that she no longer wanted to study. The terrible names she was called were just too painful and persistent to endure.

When Antonia was 8 years old, her aunt, Leidinha, encouraged and finally persuaded Iranildo to take Antonia to Fortaleza for a chance to receive free surgery at an Operation Smile Brazil medical mission. 

After a successful surgery, Iranildo couldn’t believe his eyes when he saw his daughter for the first time.

 “Antonia was the most beautiful child in the world,” Iranildo said. “The other children (who had surgery) were pretty, but she was the most beautiful.”

Antonia remembers waking up from anaesthesia – her face felt strangely different and her lip was sore. All she wanted was to return home to the loving embrace of her mother. Once reunited, Antonia’s mother cried tears of joy when she saw her daughter’s new smile.

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Once it was time to return to school, her teacher gathered her classmates – her former tormentors – together and asked them: “Have you seen Antonia? Look at her now – she has had surgery and see how beautiful she is.”

The teacher went on to explain that she had always been beautiful and that she had always been just like them – that any of them could have been born with a cleft and that Antonia never chose to be born with her condition.

From that moment on, the bullying ceased and Antonia made many friends and enjoyed social life as she continued her studies.

Meanwhile, her outstanding surgical result and photogenic nature grabbed the attention of a well-known toothpaste brand. Incredibly, the girl who was once so relentlessly tormented would become the face of a nationwide advertising campaign in Brazil.

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Last October, Antonia visited the Operation Smile medical mission to Fortaleza. There, she helped children and their parents by talking to them to ease their fears about surgery. She showed them a photo of her face before her procedure as she stood before them as living proof of Operation Smile’s life-changing work. Antonia said the experience brought back powerful memories and that helping the parents and children brought her so much joy.

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“If it was not for Operation Smile, I would not be here telling my story,” said Antonia, who hopes to become a doctor or nurse to one day help children like her. “Thank you for bringing back my happiness.”

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“Every child that has a facial deformity is our responsibility. If we don’t take care of that child, there’s no guarantee that anyone else will.”

- Kathy Magee, Operation Smile Co-founder and President