Photo: Jasmin Shah.
When one looks at this beautiful young woman, it’s hard to believe that earlier in her life, people refused to come near her.
Rikta was born with a cleft lip and palate, but today she’s a happy 20-year-old with dreams of getting into nursing school so that she can provide care for children like herself.
With the confidence and drive to pursue her goals, Rikta’s life is full of possibilities.
Before her parents connected with Operation Smile, it appeared that her future wouldn’t be this bright.
Rikta with her mother, Meera. Photo: Marc Ascher.
After giving birth to Rikta and seeing her baby’s cleft lip and palate for the first time, Rikta’s mother, Meera, felt like she had lost everything. She often cried through the first days of Rikta’s life, pleading to God for the reason why her daughter was born with a cleft condition. Her husband, Shyamapada, was too shocked to speak.
Although they were happy to learn that surgery could repair Rikta’s cleft lip shorty after her birth, their joy was fleeting. The cost of the operation exceeded their family’s means, and they left the hospital without a solution to help their child.
That pain only intensified after they arrived home.
Meera and Shyamapada were met with accusations and blame from some neighbours who insisted that Rikta’s cleft condition was caused by one of them having done something wrong on the day of an eclipse.
Rikta’s cleft lip and palate made it almost impossible for her to breastfeed properly. Desperate to help her daughter, Meera resorted to feeding her milk with a spoon.
But she knew that Rikta’s struggles were far from over. Having contracted polio when she was younger, Meera has difficulty walking. And she feared that her daughter would endure harmful ridicule just as she had.
Photo: Marc Ascher.
Meera’s worries were realised when Rikta started school. Due to the social stigma surrounding cleft conditions in her community, Rikta was not accepted by her classmates. She also experienced difficulty speaking clearly, and few people outside of her family could understand her.
“Every day, Rikta comes home and cries,” Meera said. “She compares herself to her sisters and brother and asks me why she’s not like them.”
Despite her anxiety about Rikta’s future, Meera held onto hope that one day she would have the chance to live a full and happy life.
When Rikta was 6 years old, that day finally came.
A neighbour brought Meera and Shyamapada a brochure detailing an upcoming Operation Smile medical mission in Bolpur, West Bengal; a city that’s a few hours away from their home by train.
Rikta waits with her mother during screening day at the 2005 Bolpur mission. Photo: Marc Ascher.
Anaesthetist Dr. Rodelo Valera of the Philippines checks Rikta's vital signs during her comprehensive health evaluation. Photo: Marc Ascher.
After arriving at the mission site, Meera and Rikta saw the immense number of families that also made the journey. After receiving an extensive and comprehensive health evaluation from the Operation Smile medical team, Meera and Rikta waited anxiously with more than 450 potential patients and their families to learn if Rikta would receive surgery.
Meera was so relieved when Rikta’s name was called. The day she feared would never come had finally arrived; her daughter would be given a chance at a better life.
Rikta, her mother and child life specialist Shannon Case of the United States embrace each other before her surgery. Photo: Marc Ascher.
Emotions ran high as Rikta prepared for the operation.
Seeing that Rikta had become nervous and scared while waiting for her procedure, child life specialist Shannon Case helped comfort and sooth her before she entered the operating room.
Pre- and post-operative nurse Carrie Britton of the United States cares for Rikta, along with her mom, after surgery. Photo: Marc Ascher.
Later that day, Meera couldn’t hold back her tears of joy when she held Rikta in her arms after the successful surgery.
“From the deep core of my heart, I offer my love, affection, well wishes and endless regards for all of you. I am so extremely happy,” said Meera after seeing her daughter’s new smile. “It’s a new life for her. My dream has come true today. Thank you.”
Rikta would go on to receive two more surgeries from Operation Smile: one at the age of 10 for her cleft palate and an additional cleft lip surgery when she was 15.
It was after her latest surgery that Rikta decided that her purpose is to “dedicate her life to helping humankind.”
But even before aspiring to become a nurse, Rikta touched the lives of many.
Photo: Marc Ascher.
Operation Smile India Executive Director Abhishek Sengupta met the then-6-year-old Rikta and her mother for the first time when he was a student volunteer at the Bolpur mission. He worked as a translator, helping the family communicate with the medical volunteers.
Abhishek had the opportunity to not only meet Rikta before her surgery but see the confident young woman she became afterwards.
“Rikta’s journey is truly inspiring – it has been such a pleasure to see her grow up into this fine, ambitious, beautiful soul that she is today,” Abhishek said. “It’s a privilege. Thank you, Rikta!”
When Rikta learned about Operation Smile's August 2017 Durgapur mission – 12 years after receiving her first surgery – she was eager to show her love and appreciation for the organisation that changed her life.
“I rushed here to thank them,” Rikta said after making the two-hour journey from her home.
Throughout Rikta’s life, Operation Smile and its medical volunteers remained committed to every step of her care and recovery. That unwavering devotion not only strengthened Rikta’s desire to help children but also created a lasting bond.
Today, Rikta is an honours physiology student in college who’s pursing entry into nursing school.
“Without them, I could not be what I am now.”
Photo: Marc Ascher.