To new beginnings and new smiles!

Smile Train

Asha Newsum

I was born in 1947, during the dawn of India’s Independence — a time that promised new beginnings for our country, and for me. Since I was born with a cleft, initially, my family was not sure that I’d survive infancy. They did not even name me, and for three months of my life, I was just known as ‘Baby’. There was no awareness about clefts and no way of receiving proper cleft care back then, and yet, it was my forward-thinking and optimistic father who made up his mind to not give up. He finally found a cleft surgeon, who operated on me in the dining room of our house, with barely any medical facilities to aid him. Despite these conditions, the surgery was a success, and I had a new smile. My family gave me the name ‘Asha’ — a word that denotes ‘hope’, perhaps hoping that I’d grow up to be a survivor and thrive.

Although I was fortunate enough to have had my cleft corrected at a young age, I still had to undergo several procedures until the age of 19 to get it fully repaired. Growing up, I realized that there exists a deep stigma around a facial birth difference like a cleft lip or palate. Patients with clefts - whether surgically corrected or not, have to brave a host of issues, right from insensitive comments about their appearance to social isolation due to myths and taboos associated with clefts. Convincing the world that people with clefts are just like anyone else is difficult, and it takes courage to lay bare your scars and tell your story. It took me over 60 years to tell my tale and associate myself with cleft care, but I am so glad that I have finally found this opportunity through Smile Train.

My father gave me a new smile and a new life, my innate zeal and aspirations helped me achieve things that I’d never thought possible, and now, by supporting Smile Train’s cause, I have come full circle. Life is often serendipitous that way, for I happened to meet the Smile Train team 8 years ago through sheer coincidence. Their sustainable model of providing comprehensive cleft care deeply inspired me, for I believe that cleft care models must be institutionalized, locally anchored and scalable to be efficiently implemented. Having worked extensively for development of health and public services, I know that cleft repair is not just limited to surgery alone, and treatments ranging from orthodontics, counselling, speech and language therapy are also necessary to make cleft kids a productive member of the society. That is why, I have actively been associated with Smile Train since last year to provide support through cause advocacy and volunteering time to spread awareness. An integrated, multisectoral approach is the need of the hour, and apart from Smile Train partners, contributions from philanthropists and volunteers can widen the scope for innovation and allow greater flexibility to truly provide comprehensive cleft care across the world.

Recently, I had the opportunity of visiting two Smile Train partner hospitals, and the experience humbled me, for I had never met so many children with cleft before. The faith they had in the Smile Train team was awe inspiring and speaks volumes about Smile Train’s cleft care model. I was also happy to see the culture of equality there - both in terms of providing quality care to all irrespective of their background, and the efforts put in by men and women alike to help children with clefts. All the women in Smile Train’s team, from leaders to caregivers, are empathetic, compassionate human beings - and it’s fitting that we are celebrating them as SmileMakers on International Women’s Day!

As told by Asha Newsum, who has worked extensively for promotion of international development for poverty reduction at UK Aid Direct and is currently retired. She is now associated with Smile Train as a supporter and cause advocate.

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