Isaac at the Operation Smile surigical programme in Mzuzu, Malawi. Photo: Margherita Mirabella

Nine-year-old Isaac takes a two hour walk to school every day. He loves mathematics and is keen to learn, but like many children with cleft conditions, his time at school is overshadowed by the cruel comments he faces from other children. And, when Isaac returns home it’s common for him to be ostracised and ridiculed by those around him due to the stigma that surrounds his condition.   

This was Isaac’s reality before Operation Smile – living in a remote community in Malawi, his story shows the importance of the role of community volunteers who challenge the very misconceptions and fear about cleft conditions that caused the people around him to treat Isaac so badly.   

When Isaac was born, you can imagine how his parents felt trying to come to terms with the shock of a condition they’d never seen or heard of before. Trying to process the reality of their son’s cleft, and the doctors’ suggestions for future surgery. Like many families in remote communities, they had a strong fear and mistrust of hospitals and doctors. Isaac’s mother feared surgery would kill her son, so she was completely against the idea. 

Hope came in the form of Isaac’s aunt, Yasuzga. She learned about Operation Smile and realised that Isaac could have the surgery he needed, safely, and for free. Unable to convince his parents, Yasuzga fought to become Isaac’s guardian and as soon as she could, registered him with Operation Smile so he’d have a chance of surgery.   

When the time came, Yasuzga travelled to the programme site in Mzuzu, accompanied by community volunteer Alick. Community volunteers like Alick are vital in building relationships with parents, caregivers and communities. They help families access the care they need – alleviating many of the fears that prevent some from seeking help in the first place. 

Yasuzga was impressed by the care the medical volunteers gave to Isaac, in particular during the medical evaluation where he underwent a series of thorough checks to make sure he was healthy enough for surgery. When Yasuzga learnt that Isaac was on the surgical list, she was delighted – she said Isaac hoped that friends back at school would now stop laughing at him. 

After seeing Isaac’s new smile for the first time, Yasuzga called his mum who couldn’t contain her joy at the news, screaming and laughing on the phone. Yasuzga is convinced that Isaac’s story will help challenge misinformation and misconceptions about cleft conditions and surgery in their community. 

Isaac with Alick, Community Volunteer, and other patients he brought to the surgical programme in Mzuzu, Malawi. Photo: Margherita Mirabella.

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