Malnutrition contributes to the deaths of 3.1m children under five each year. For children with cleft conditions, it’s a significant threat, because of problems they face with feeding. That’s why nutritional support is an essential (and life-saving) part of the comprehensive care we provide, and why volunteer nutritionists like Georgina Ntem play such an important role.

A passion for nutrition

Georgina has been volunteering for Operation Smile for three years and her enthusiasm for her work is clear. Her face lights up as she talks about it: “Growing up, I was always moved about how diet and the body works.” She says, “There were times I saw people sick and I asked myself, ‘God created food and God created humans, so I bet he created food to help humans, so what can I also do to help people?’ I decided to study, do more research, and I realised that, wow, I could be a dietitian to help people.” 

Helping people is Georgina’s passion, so giving her time to volunteer for Operation Smile comes naturally, she tells us: “I’ve always wanted to help people in different ways and I realised that Operation Smile is an organisation that also helps people. It helps to put smiles on the faces of people, and I just realised that I have the same values as Operation Smile, putting smiles on the faces of people. The only thing I could do is to bring my skills on board to make this a reality.”

Georgina has worked with the Operation Smile nutrition team since 2020. She tells us she meets them twice a month and explains why nutritional support is such a crucial step on a child’s care journey

Georgina providing a health evaluation to a patient
Photo: Margherita Mirabella

Without proper nutrition, children cannot go through surgery. We have something we call the nutrition care process. It’s a process we follow to make sure that the kids are ready for surgery. The first part is nutrition assessment. That is where I am because I’m the junior dietitian. With the nutrition assessment, the anthropometric measurements are taken, such as the weight, the height, the mark. All of these measurements will help us to know whether the child is ready for surgery.

Georgina Ntem, Dietician and Operation Smile Ghana volunteer

During a child’s initial assessment Georgina explains that the nutrition team also take blood samples to check hemoglobin levels. Hemoglobin is an important indicator to decide if a child is healthy enough for surgery – if levels are low then the body struggles to carry oxygen around the body and get rid of harmful carbon dioxide. Other information is recorded too during the assessment, Georgina tells us:

“We also look at diet history, what the child has been eating for some time. Also we take environmental history, where the child lives. Do they have access to good drinking water? Do they have access to good roads that can bring them to the surgical grounds? All of these things are factored when it comes to the nutrition clinic.”

Fighting malnutrition takes strength

Problems feeding are a common concern for babies with cleft palate as the gap in the roof of the mouth prevents them from sucking and swallowing properly. Georgina explains:

“Some of the babies cannot suckle properly. Even those who manage to eat have the food passing back out through their nostrils. Because this is new to the mothers, some of them do not know how to go about it. That is where we come in to teach them what to do, how to position the baby properly to help them suckle, how to feed the children, the positions they can use to feed the children, the tools they can use to feed. There is a specialised feeding bottle they have to use, and the mothers do not know about it. That is where our skills come in to teach them all of this.”

Because of these problems feeding, many of the young patients Georgina sees are underweight, or worse, severely malnourished. She tells us:

“Most of them are underweight, and then some of them have issues with blood, they are anemic.” She explains. Georgina’s emotions are clear when she talks about the babies she sees who are struggling with malnutrition and she tells us: “I feel sad. But then I know that this is where we work the miracle. This is where we come in in. This is where our expertise does the magic. As much as I feel sad from the beginning, I have to be strong for the mother to also be strong.”

Georgina during a nutrition clinic
Photo: Lorenzo Monacelli
Georgina reassuring a mother during a nutrition clinic
Photo: Margherita Mirabella

Hope for worried families

But thanks to the nutrition team in Ghana there is hope. Georgina and her colleagues are there to reassure worried families and give them the tools and support they need to help their children recover and get ready for surgery. The reward comes for Georgina when she sees a child getting stronger, putting on weight, and regaining the spark and energy of good health:

“Within some months you realise that the child is perfect, and then we are all good to go. AndI feel happy. I feel fulfilled, because at the end of the day, I know I’m not just wasting my time here, but then I’m investing in something that is helping humanity.” She says.

Listening to Georgina it’s clearly a joy for her to see the relief and happiness of the faces of the parents she meets. Mothers who had previously watched their babies become weaker by the day and felt powerless to help.

“Some of the parents come, the first time they come, you realise that they have sad faces. They are all teary and sad, but then later they come and they’re like, ‘Thank you very much. If it hadn’t been for you, I don’t know what would have happened to my child!’” She tells us.

‘Fulfilled and happy’ – the rewards of volunteering

Knowing that she’s helping others keeps Georgina going through what can be emotionally challenging work. She tells us: “What keeps me motivated is to know that I’m helping humanity, because at the end of the day, we are all here for one purpose, to help each other in any way possible we can. It could be money, it could be skills, it could be knowledge, it could be anything you have. Most of these people they’re rejected, they’re stigmatised. You helping them, me helping them makes me fulfilled and happy.”

Going the extra mile to help

We ask Georgina to recall a favourite patient story, one that stays at the forefront of her mind. There are undoubtedly too many to name, but she tells us about a young patient called Blessing who was severely malnourished. Blessing’s mother was struggling to cope financially. She had a mentally challenged husband and because of stigma in their community about Blessing’s cleft, she was unable to work. Georgina tells us more:

Blessing was about one and a half years old, but her story was very sad. Her weight was nothing good to write home about. I think at that age, she was around 4.5kg, which was very, very bad. We tried doing a lot of things, but each and every time she came it was still the same or even worse.

“I took it upon myself to treat this patient specially. I provided things like money and provisions in addition to the support she was getting from Operation Smile. I went to the extent of visiting her in her house to see where she lives, do they have access to drinking water? All of those things were not there. I realised that where they were sleeping was a very small room with no door. It meant that the child was always being bitten by mosquitoes. I had to go the extra mile to provide mosquito nets, do things I could do even though it was affecting me financially because I’m also now trying to stand on my feet.

“I look back today, and I must say I’m proud of myself, because finally, Blessing, has been able to have her lip surgery done because her weight went up from 4.5kg to 7kg. Her surgery was done last month. I just asked myself, if I hadn’t gone the extra mile to do this, this child would have just been there, and maybe we wouldn’t have known what would have happened to that child. That child is really dear to my heart.”

Now Blessing has had her operation, Georgina tells us that her mum is now able to work which will make life much more bearable for the family.

Georgina during a nutrition clinic
Photo: Margherita Mirabella

Overcoming barriers

Georgina is right to be proud of her achievements. For many women in Ghana there are still significant cultural hurdles to overcome if they want to pursue an education and a career. Getting married and staying at home is still often the ‘expected’ norm and a barrier to entry for many female medical students. Georgina explains: “There is a big gap when it comes to gender, because if you are a female and you’re trying to study in this field, people think you cannot do it just because of your gender, just because of being a female. We still find ourselves in a situation where they feel as a girl child, you have to stay at home after school, you have to get married. I can use myself as an example. After school, I’m being asked, ‘When are you going to get married?’ When I still have dreams of furthering my education. I actually want to be a medical doctor one day.”

Inspiring others

We have no doubts that Georgina will fulfill her ambitions. In addition to running her own consultancy and changing lives through volunteering, she uses her involvement in beauty pageants as a platform to reach and support other young women in Ghana. Her closing words sum up perfectly why she’s an inspiration to many and remind us all that helping others is the key to finding lasting happiness and fulfillment:

“I just realised that I get happy when I help people. I get fulfilled when I help people. That is me. If I would have to suffer to see someone smile, that is it for me. At the end of the day, it’s something that is inside. I just love helping people.”

Georgina checking a patient during a nutrition clinic. Photo: Margherita Mirabella

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