Cleft care became an integral part of my life since I started my Fellowship at Bhagwan Mahaveer Jain Hospital - Smile Train’s partner hospital in Bangalore. Before joining this programme, I had studied Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery from Rajiv Gandhi University of Health Sciences. My rigorous training helped me grow quickly in my career. I had started as a junior consultant, and now, I am a Project Director and operating surgeon at Meenakshi Hospital, Thanjavur. In my years of association with Smile Train, I have seen that cleft patients often come from vulnerable backgrounds. Lack of awareness about clefts is the root cause of all the superstitions and myths surrounding this birth difference, and I have seen many instances of children and families braving through the ill-treatment meted out by society.
While every case is special, there was one particular story that left a profound impression on me. A pregnant Nepali woman had gone to her parents’ village to deliver her child. When they saw that the baby boy was born with a cleft, her family disowned them both. They even sent correspondence to the baby’s father, who had not yet seen the child, that his wife’s bad karma had led to his child being cursed; and therefore, the family must sacrifice the child to appease the Gods. Hearing this, the boy’s father went to Nepal to perform this task, but he had a change of heart when he saw the baby. The family fled the village and came to Tamil Nadu, India. Soon, he found out that a surgery could help their baby, so he worked multiple shifts as a cook to save money to meet the expenses. Finally, when the baby’s cleft was repaired at our hospital, the father offered me all the money they had saved as payment. When I told him that this surgery was completely free of cost, he could not believe it, and the family broke down in tears as they thanked me. That’s when I fully understood the magnitude of the work we do as Smile Train partners, and how important it is to offer free of cost comprehensive cleft care in India and across the world.
Smile Train’s sustainable model of cleft care is a brilliant example of how impactful timely interventions can be. As a partner surgeon, I have seen how cleft treatment can lead to a shift in attitude and have a deep psychological impact for the better. I am certain that the children who have received treatment through Smile Train will grow up to be confident young adults, with high self-esteem and will thrive. I have always believed that socio-economic status should not govern what quality of care people receive and being associated with Smile Train gives me the opportunity of providing equal and affordable cleft care to all my patients. It’s also inspiring to work with the women associated with Smile Train - women who share the same values and are extremely organized, driven, and empathetic in performing their roles.
As we celebrate International Women’s Day, I want to see the mothers of children born with clefts being prioritized. We as cleft care providers must educate them about their rights, give access to information about women's health and provide counselling support if they are blamed for the child’s birth difference. I also want girls and women everywhere to know that women doing well in various fields is not an exception, or even something surprising — it’s a reality and it has always been that way. Now, we are just getting recognized for it. So keep doing great work and ensure that the theme “Each for Equal” becomes a norm.
As told by Dr. Saumya Tripathi, who has been associated with Smile Train since 2014, and is currently a Project Director and Consultant Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeon at Meenakshi Hospital, Thanjavur, Tamil Nadu. She completed her Fellowship from Bhagwan Mahaveer Jain Hospital in Bangalore.