Felista did everything she thought she should do during her pregnancy: She ate well and received full prenatal care.
She and her husband, Steve, were already the proud parents of a healthy child, so they didn’t think anything could go wrong with the birth of their second son, Prince.
But when Prince was born with a cleft lip, Felista and Steve felt helpless. They were heartbroken when they saw their son for the first time.
“How could this happen? What did I do wrong?” Felista became overwhelmed with feelings of anxiety, doubt and dispair.
Thankfully, those thoughts didn’t last long. As soon as Prince was born, the hospital staff reassured the family and let them know that their son’s cleft lip is a congenital condition that is treatable through surgery, and an organization named Operation Smile comes to Malawi regularly to help babies like theirs.
To Felista and Steve’s immense relief, the hospital staff helped the family register their newborn son with Operation Smile on the day of his birth. The nurses took extra care to teach Felista how to properly nurse Prince to keep him nourished and healthy until the next Operation Smile medical mission arrived. The staff told the family that Prince would be a great candidate for surgery if he remained healthy and gained weight.
Felista said she remembered seeing other young children who were also born with cleft lip, though she didn’t realize surgery was an option until the hospital staff told her.
She added that some of her neighbors believed Prince’s cleft lip was caused by an unknown infection she suffered during pregnancy. While it’s currently difficult to identify the exact cause of any given cleft condition, Operation Smile is working with its partners at the University of Southern California and Children’s Hospital Los Angeles to better understand the causes of cleft in the International Family Study.
Not long after Prince was born, Felista was notified by the same hospital that an Operation Smile medical mission was scheduled to be conducted at Kamuzu Central Hospital in Lilongwe, about 30 minutes away from their home by foot and bus.
On the very first day of the mission, Felista and Prince arrived at the hospital with Prince to undergo a comprehensive medical evaluation delivered by Operation Smile medical volunteers to determine if Prince was healthy enough for surgery. After the evaluation, Felista anxiously waited to hear if Prince would be placed on the schedule.
The next morning, Felista not only learned that Prince was selected to receive surgery, but the procedure would be the very next day. Later that afternoon, Felista, Prince and the 26 other patients who were also scheduled for surgery that day arrived at the hospital for admission.
After one more night of waiting in the preoperative ward, Prince was one of the first patients to enter the operating room and was back in his mother’s embrace in less than an hour. As Prince slept peacefully in the arms of Felista, she couldn’t stop gazing at her son’s new smile in awe.
In such a short time, the course of his life was forever altered. Prince received surgery as a baby – the ideal time – which put him on a path towards improved health and dignity. He’ll never know the suffering that all too many children living with cleft conditions have to endure, such as harmful and recurring infections and the damaging psychological effects of bullying and social isolation. Due to these and other factors, as many as nine out of 10 children with unrepaired cleft conditions die before their 20th birthdays.
When Prince returned home, his family and neighbors couldn’t believe the change in his appearance. Felista said that since Prince’s surgery, life has been much better for her family. She expressed her gratitude for the Operation Smile medical team that provided her son with both safe surgery and hope for a brighter future.