Operation Santa Claus

Operation Smile helps cleft lip kids in rural China

Doctors are transforming the lives of children born with cleft lips and palates in rural China

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 29 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 29 November, 2012, 3:39am

It's a simple operation, but it can transform a child's life by restoring the smile on her face.

Yang Yan is a young girl who lives in a rural village in Yunnan with her parents, who are poor farmers. When Yan turned seven her parents were going to enrol her in school, but the girl refused and cried, saying the other children would laugh at her.

Yan was born with a cleft lip, making it difficult for her to eat and speak as she was growing up. Although her parents tried to save money for a lip operation, they never had enough income from ploughing fields and keeping pigs.

In 2009, Operation Smile's volunteer doctors arrived at a nearby hospital, and Yan was among the dozens of children with cleft lips or palates who underwent the 45-minute operation.

Before the surgery, Yan had been a shy and quiet girl who hid behind her father. She would not speak, only nodding or shaking her head when people asked her questions.

When the volunteers returned two years later, they found Yan's upper lip had recovered perfectly. She was now a cheerful girl eager to play with other children.

So far this year, volunteers with Operation Smile's China Medical Mission have travelled through 10 provinces and performed almost 1,000 operations.

Some of the children they help were adopted, said Anila Ma Yee-ting, the organisation's development manager.

"Their parents have difficulty making ends meet, but even so they adopt these abandoned children when they see them in the streets," Ma said. "They don't mind that the youngsters have a deformity."

These children require extra care because many suffer from the effects of being bullied. In China, one out of every 600 newborn babies have a deformed lip or palate.

Operation Santa Claus is raising funds so that more children in rural China can receive the operation next year.

"Next year, we'll be going to even more remote places, where we haven't been yet," said Ma. "China is getting richer, but many people still need the operation."