Operations bring smiles back to cleft-palate tots

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 26 June, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 26 June, 2011, 12:00am


Moments after Mao Dongmei gave birth to her first son, doctors in her hometown of Qidong Lusi in Jiangsu province gave her one piece of advice: get rid of your baby because he is deformed.

'After I gave birth, the doctors suggested I abandon my son because he would not be able to suck on the breast,' 26-year-old Mao said.

Her son, Gu Yanhu, who is now 15 months old, was born with a cleft lip and palate, a congenital deformity that affects one in 600 children born on the mainland.

'But I felt confident that I could look after my baby. I could never abandon him. It was the right choice,' Mao said, as she stroked the dozing toddler after his operation at a charity hospital in Hangzhou run by Operation Smile.

The US non-governmental organisation, which has its main China office in Hong Kong, has offered free cleft lip and palate operations to the mainland's poor for 20 years.

The severity of a cleft lip can range from a small split in the lip to extreme cases where the split extends to the nose, or there are two splits. A cleft palate is an opening in the roof of the mouth, which results in there being no separation between the bottom of the nose and the mouth. Both conditions have been linked to genetics or nutrition, but there is no clear medical reason why clefts develop.

However, they can be easily fixed. A one-hour operation costs between 5,000 yuan (HK$6,000) and 20,000 yuan, but many families cannot afford it and the public health system does not provide the surgery.

Yanhu's father, Gu Guoxin, 27, said his son's life had changed forever, thanks to the organisation. 'He will have better self-esteem and he will be stronger now,' he said.

The family earns about 2,000 yuan a month and this also supports Gu's parents and Mao's mother. They have so little money to spare that they had to borrow 1,000 yuan from neighbours to pay for the bus tickets for the six-hour journey to Hangzhou.

Yanhu's cleft lip was fixed in September last year and he returned two days ago for a second operation to mend his cleft palate. This procedure would have cost the family 10,000 yuan at a public hospital.

'We were counting the months until he could go back,' Mao said, as the ideal age for cleft palate surgeries is 15 to 18 months.

She says her son tries to talk but cannot. That will change as he recovers from the operation that united the two sides of his palate. 'I am so grateful to Operation Smile,' Mao said.

Another happy family is that of Zhang Shaolin, 26, and Rao Peipei, 23, from Jinde in Jiangsu, whose son Zhikai was born with a cleft lip.

Zhang said his son would have more opportunities in life now because he would not have a deformity. 'It's normal for people to want to look beautiful,' he said.

Operation Smile China's chief operating officer Michael Wu said it also offered speech therapy, dental care and post-operation follow-ups.


The number of years Operation Smile has been giving free operations to babies born with cleft palates on the mainland