Sisters’ Lives Transformed Through Safe Cleft Surgery

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Jheleen and Andrea before surgery

One of the most memorable moments for any parent is hearing your child say, ‘Mama’ for the first time. Such a simple word, but with it, a flurry of emotions and a love felt beyond words.

But not for Laila, mother of sisters Jheleen, aged four, and Andrea, aged three. Laila never heard this word spoken properly by her daughters. Each baby girl was born with a cleft condition. This made feeding very difficult for them, let alone speaking – and with their condition came a young life full of ridicule and shame for this family from the Philippines.

Laila and her husband Ronald doted on their two beautiful daughters, but they lived in constant worry as to how they would be able to heal their daughters’ broken mouths. Ronald’s meagre income of US$70 barely allowed them to feed and clothe their family – they couldn’t imagine how they could ever afford the surgery that would change Jheleen and Andrea’s lives. When they did approach a doctor locally about what to do for their daughters, they were told that surgery could not be performed until the girls were seven years old. This explanation could not be further from the truth. In fact, cleft surgeries are recommended for healthy children before the age of two to yield the best healing results – something they had no way of knowing.

When they received a neighbourhood flyer that told them surgery was both possible for their young girls and free, they immediately pre-registered for the Operation Smile mission to the Philippines in November 2012.

Doctors and nurses evaluated the girls and found they were fit for surgery – this brought unmeasurable joy to Laila and Ronald who felt a deep trust and admiration for the Operation Smile medical teams who met the girls at the hospital.

After surgery, the girls were each given a mirror so they could see their new smiles. It took Andrea three days before she accepted that she was the little girl looking back at herself. And for their mother Laila, hearing Jheleen & Andrea pronounce ‘Mama’ properly for the first time brought her tears of complete happiness.

The girls are no longer stared at, teased and called names. They love to go to school and play with other children. Jheleen & Andrea’s surgery has changed the lives of the whole family and they now look to their future with optimism and hope.

Operation Smile continues to visit the Philippines, as well as an average of 28 other countries annually, performing safe surgeries, as well as training local medical professionals and building a lasting solution in communities. This investment will mean a better future for children like Jheleen and Andrea – who will now have access to safe, effective and timely surgery when it’s needed most.

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Andrea and Jheleen after surgery


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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