Looking at Samuel today, you’d never know the isolation he faced as a child, and the increasing despair he felt as a teenager growing up with an untreated cleft lip in Ghana.

Far from the carefree childhood and early adulthood that most of us take for granted, Samuel was treated as an outcast by those around him. Many of the other children in his community refused to even go near him, because some believed his cleft was caused by a disease they might catch if they got too close. We can only imagine how it must have felt for Samuel to face such deep-rooted stigma from those around him.

Surviving the darkness

Now a handsome 23-year-old, with a wife and three-year-old daughter, Samuel’s life today is in stark contrast to his childhood and early adulthood. Samuel told us previously that before surgery, he had thoughts of ending his life. The insults he faced on a daily basis were too painful. Thankfully he was surrounded by a loving family. It was their unconditional love and support which gave him the strength and determination to keep going through those darker times.

Most of us can’t imagine how it would feel to be forced to hide away from the world just to avoid cruel comments and hushed whispers from passersby. We ask Samuel to explain what life was like, “I used to hide myself.” he admits, “I don’t go out, I don’t mingle with people. I wasn’t feeling comfortable back then.” Samuel’s honest account of his feelings is hard to hear – the emotional scars are clear. But his story shows the importance of raising awareness of cleft conditions and finding children and families sooner so that they don’t have to carry the heavy burden of an untreated cleft.

Samuel before his life changing surgery. Photo: Margherita Mirabella

A poster that changed everything

Samuel tells us he was 18 when his mum found out about Operation Smile. Community volunteers had put up a poster advertising a forthcoming surgical programme. Dialing the phone number on that poster and speaking to the team in Operation Smile Ghana was the turning point for Samuel and his family. They learned he could have surgery to repair his cleft, for free, giving them renewed hope for the future.

It was a six-hour journey from where the family lived to the surgical programme in Ho, in the eastern part of the country. But Samuel explains the relief he felt on arriving and seeing other people with cleft conditions for the first time, “Many people are here with that problem.” He says, “It’s not me alone!”

New-found freedom and confidence

As he talks about what it felt like after surgery, Samuel describes himself as ‘free’ and explains that before his cleft was repaired, he would avoid putting his hand up in class to answer questions for fear of drawing attention to himself. He recalls how this new sense of freedom meant that he could now answer questions and put himself forward for opportunities. In fact, this freedom gave Samuel the confidence to apply for the position of house prefect in his class and importantly to make friends. “After the surgery, a lot of things have come in my life. A lot of things. I have found friends.” he says.

Samuel now – Photo: Lorenzo Monacelli

Hope for the future

One of nine children, Samuel has two brothers and six sisters. He is clear that cleft surgery has opened up a wealth of new opportunities for him, but admits that financially, life for the family is still challenging. As the second oldest child, Samuel helps support his siblings, most of whom are now in school or studying. It’s clear Samuel hopes for wider change and opportunity in the country as a whole. He tells us he has applied to the Ghana Training Service, something that would never have been possible before his surgery and we hope his strength and determination to succeed will soon be rewarded.

As our interview draws to close, we ask Samuel if he has any final words to share with us and his message is one of gratitude and positivity, he says: “I am free today. God bless them [Operation Smile] so that they should continue doing this marvellous work they have done for me. Thank you.”

We thank Samuel for allowing us to bring his story to life. His words show us that where there’s love, there’s hope. But poignantly, Samuel’s story reminds us of the importance of finding and treating our patients sooner. No child should have to hide away from the world. And no child should have to feel despair about their future.

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