Facing starvation – a life in the balance

Afia was born with a bilateral cleft lip and palate. Her condition meant she couldn’t breastfeed – a serious and life-threatening problem for babies with cleft conditions.  

When we first met her, in Accra, Ghana, Afia was four months old and weighed just 2.6 pounds. Mum, Christiana had tried desperately to get enough milk into her baby daughter to stop her from losing weight, but her cleft palate made it almost impossible,

Afia’s tiny body became so frail due to malnourishment, she needed urgent nutritional support. She was immediately taken to hospital where she was cared for by the team at Operation Smile Ghana, who covered the costs of her treatment.  

After three months in hospital, Afia weighed 9 pounds and was deemed healthy enough to return home. The doctors gave Christiana a strict feeding plan for Afia, as well as special bottles designed for babies with cleft palate.

Two babies sleeping in bed.
Afia at 4 months old. Photo: Operation Smile
Two year old Afia.
Afia before her surgery. Photo: Operation Smile.

From hope to despair

In November 2015, with Afia’s health steadily improving – Christiana, brought Afia to the Operation Smile surgical programme in Ho, Ghana, where she hoped her daughter could have the life-changing cleft repair surgery she so desperately needed. Sadly, on this occasion, Afia had a fever, so the surgery was deemed too risky. Christiana told us:

“I was heartbroken. Once I went back to my village, the neighbours blamed me and shunned my husband and me. Our family was bound to a future full of disappointment and rejection. I cried every day for one week, but I did not lose hope. Coming to the programme, I realised that I am not the only one having a child suffering with cleft, I felt relieved because I know that the day Afia will receive the surgery will come soon and our lives will be changed forever.”

In the spring of 2016, came Afia’s second chance, and once again the team in Ghana welcomed the family with open arms. This time Afia had a chesty cough, and despite best efforts to treat it, surgery was once again felt to be too dangerous.

Christiana was desperate, and even started to question her own faith, feeling that God had abandoned her. She said, “I don’t know how I could have done without the support of the patient coordinator Clement. His words of encouragement and hope made me keep going.”

A young life saved

In October the following year, Afia was finally able to have surgery to repair her cleft lip, and a year later, returned to have her cleft palate repaired. Medical volunteer and anaesthetist Dr Clive Duke recalls how moving it was to finally be able to give Afia the surgery she needed, he said:

“When we finished operating, I took Afia into recovery and into the arms of her mother who started smiling broadly. All who were watching had a huge smile and a tear in our eyes as we had the strong feeling that a life had just been saved.”

And when Christiana saw Afia after her surgery she was overwhelmed by her daughter’s transformation, she said, “I could not believe that she is my child. She is so beautiful! God Bless Operation Smile!”

Afia stands with her mother while talking to nutritionist Dede Kwadjo.
Two year old Afia with mum Christiana talks to Nutritionist Dede Kwadjo after her lip surgery. Photo: Zute Lightfoot.
Young girl smiling.
Afia is looking forward to her future. Photo: Margherita Mirabella.

A future transformed

Fear and misunderstanding about cleft conditions was rife in Afia’s community, and her family had faced prejudice because people around them believed that a cleft condition, was a curse or punishment. A successful operation for Afia meant far more than just healing her cleft – it also changed the community’s perceptions of the little girl.

Thankfully Afia’s surgeries took place before she’d started school. That’s why timely cleft surgery is so vital – it prevents a child from experiencing bullying and protects them from some of the deeper emotional scars caused by being shunned and ridiculed by other children.

“When we came back, no one treated her like she was cursed,” Christiana said. And, one by one, her neighbours and family members visited Afia to see her new smile firsthand. Most members of the community apologised, and Afia was quickly accepted and embraced by her peers. 

Now at 8 years old, Afia is happy and confident. She loves going to school and loves learning. She has many friends that play with her, but she also enjoys reading. Christiana is really proud of her little girl and she hopes she’ll be able to study and become a nurse.

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