Saving a Child From a Life of Shame

Elisa

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When Elisa was born, her parents, Sidonie and Jean, were overcome by sadness – their daughter had been born with a cleft lip and cleft palate, and they believed this was God's plan for them. Jean encouraged his wife to be strong. As poor farmers in a rural village in Madagascar, they had no money to pay for the surgery that could heal their daughter’s smile and no way to prepare for the hate and ridicule that she would endure. Worse, because Elisa had a hard time breastfeeding, she became malnourished. Sidonie constantly worried that her daughter would die.

Their neighbors seemed to take pleasure in their family’s pain. “It hurt in my heart when I heard people say mean things about her,” Sidonie said as she recounted how people would say Elisa is ugly and she doesn’t know how to speak. Even Sidonie’s mother-in-law began to despise her for giving birth to a child with cleft. But despite the fear and isolation she felt, Sidonie considered Elisa’s heart-wrenching condition to be a test of faith. She was unwavering and prayed every day for a way to help little Elisa.

“She is my girl and I will always love her!”

As Elisa grew, so did a light inside of her that her parents wished the world could see. They continued to pray, and then one day, their prayers were answered. Sidonie and Jean learned that Operation Smile provides free cleft surgeries – and they were determined not to let the long distance or their lack of resources stand in their way. The family sold their pig and cassava field to pay for bus fare and embarked with little Elisa on a 23-hour journey toward hope. 

By the time the family arrived for medical screening, Elisa had become sick. Sidonie and Jean feared that if her fever continued, doctors would not be able to operate. Thankfully, her illness passed. When the day arrived, Elisa was ready for the first of two surgeries. She would have her cleft lip healed first, then return later for surgery to fix her cleft palate.

Elisa's parents waited nervously while she underwent the procedure for her cleft lip – and were relieved to hear it was a success. When Sidonie saw Elisa for the first time after her operation, she was overwhelmed by the change in her precious daughter’s face. As the hours passed, she learned to love Elisa's new smile even more.

On returning home, everyone was amazed by the difference in Elisa and warmly welcomed her back. She began to make friends and loved to play. She especially loved pretending to cook for her family and newfound friends. Sidonie hopes Elisa will go to school one day.

“I could even sell my possessions to pay for her studies,” She added. “My dream is that she will travel when she is older.”

Sidonie told everyone in the village how well Operation Smile cared for them, and she began reaching out to find other families who had children with cleft conditions. A few months later, when Sidonie and Elisa made the journey to Operation Smile for Elisa’s cleft palate surgery, they did not come alone. Sidonie brought two other families with her. Happily, all the children were cleared and scheduled for surgeries.

A few days later, after successful surgeries and a final medical check, the three families returned home to their communities – their lives forever changed.

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“She doesn’t have trouble eating anymore. She is healthy and looks like all the other children,” Sidonie said of her daughter. “She’s normal now.”

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“Every child that has a facial deformity is our responsibility. If we don’t take care of that child, there’s no guarantee that anyone else will.”

- Kathy Magee, Operation Smile Co-founder