Esdras Mendoza looked like a newborn at just 4.9 kilograms, or about 10 pounds. I locked eyes with him in passing and instantly fell in love. It wasn’t until later that I learned Esdras was not in fact an infant. He is 6 months old and severely malnourished.
I met Esdras and his mother Odili Varela in Honduras just a couple weeks ago on my first Operation Smile medical mission. I’ve worked at Operation Smile for seven years, so when I was preparing to go on my first medical mission, I felt like I knew what I was going into. I know the process, I know the work we do, I know it’s all amazing.
But what I didn’t know what how emotionally invested I would become in one patient in particular – going from heart-shattering emotions to pure elation in less than a week.
Esdras arrived at the mission site in Honduras covered in filth and urine from his leaking cloth diaper. His mother brought him by bus from their hometown more than five hours away where his father worked odd jobs just to get the bus fare to the Operation Smile site. When they arrived at screening, Odili was told her son would not be able to receive surgery. He was too malnourished.
The hospital admitted Esdras to try to get him healthier before sending him and his mother back home. The speech therapist, Valarie, carried Esdras around the hospital while everyone cooed at Esdras as the two passed. Odili was sitting away in a corner, barely watching as if she didn’t care.
Odili found out she was pregnant with Esdras just three months after giving birth to her daughter. She didn’t want another baby, she told our volunteers. When Esdras was born with a cleft, she didn’t think he would survive. She carried her son like a pile of school books on her hip, his body facing outward.
From the baby’s eyes I could tell he was not only starved for food, he was starving for attention.
Over the next few days, the volunteers and I taught Odili how to properly feed her son using a special bottle and formula. We played with Esdras, loved on Esdras, gave him millions of hugs and kisses. We taught Odili that her son deserves more attention and more effort since feeding is so difficult for him.
It broke my heart that she didn’t already know this. I’m a mom. I stayed at home to raise my three kids for 14 years. The one thing I knew I was always good at was being a mother. For his sake, I needed to show Odili how to be a good mom to her son, regardless of his afflictions – especially since his cleft lip can be corrected by Operation Smile, and hopefully soon. She needed to learn how to bond with him, to be a mother to him, to love him. Hopefully, I was able to help her see that, or at least help get the process started during my short time with them.
By my last day, Odili was picking up her son with his body facing hers. She was giving him kisses, smiling at him, talking to him and playing. Our staff in Honduras told her Operation Smile will pay for their travel and lodging if they would check in at one of the centers monthly to monitor the baby’s health. The staff also promised more formula, more diapers, more clothes and toys each time they checked in.
I can only hope Odili continues to check in with the Operation Smile staff over the next few months and that Esdras continues to gain strength.
By the time I left, Esdras had already gained more than a pound. What seems like such a tiny achievement left me with such hope for this little boy’s future. The next mission is in May, and if he’s healthy, Esdras has already been promised a slot.
While it was heartbreaking to see a baby get turned away from surgery, I have hope that in just a few months, I’ll hear back from the Honduras team that Esdras is healthy and has a repaired cleft lip. Operation Smile’s care and dedication reaches far beyond surgery day.