The Long Road to a Smile

Smile Train

Smile Train India

Shireen was born with a bilateral cleft lip in the most harsh and treacherous terrain in India — near Siachen Glacier. Even the thought of the sub-zero temperatures there is enough to give most people a shiver down their spine.

However, freezing weather and inaccessibility to healthcare did not stop her grandfather, Kubair Khan, a decorated war veteran who had fought in the Kargil war, from ensuring treatment for Shireen. Shireen’s family walked twenty kilometers on a frozen lake in order to catch a bus to reach Ladakh’s capital Leh. At Leh, they queued up and waited for their turn to catch a subsidized flight run by the Indian Air Force to Chandigarh. For subsidized flights like these, the waiting time can stretch to weeks or sometimes even months.

It was an honour for us to have them at the Tricity Institute of Plastic Surgery in Chandigarh, a Smile Train partner hospital. After learning about their mind-boggling journey, we left no stone unturned to treat Shireen as quickly as possible. They had a window of only one week, as their subsidized flight was to leave then. Had they missed it, their turn would have come after a month!

When her grandfather saw Shireen’s face after the surgery, he pulled out his war medal and presented it to us. It was such an emotional and overwhelming moment that words fall short to express it. Needless to say, Shireen’s family caught the flight back home on time and left us with memories and stories which we will continue to cherish for the rest of our lives. 

Shireen after cleft surgury

What if the treatment for Shireen had not been available in Chandigarh? We are not sure if Shireen’s grandfather could have brought her to a city like Delhi. It’s sobering to realize that thousands of children still await surgery due to challenges such as accessibility to cleft care. While some families, like Shireen’s, move mountains (almost literally!) in their determination to seek treatment, not everybody is able to do the same. Smile Train’s model empowers local doctors with funding, training and resources to make quality healthcare accessible to across the country. This vision motivates not only me, but many other medical professionals in this country, and we hope to see the day when cleft care is accessible to every child locally. 

Written by Smile Train partner surgeon, Dr Ankur Sood. Shireen was operated at Tricity Institute of Plastic Surgery in Chandigarh.

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