It’s nearing the end of a long day – the first day of surgeries during Operation Smile’s November 2017 medical mission at Eastern Regional Hospital in Koforidua, Ghana.
After 15 hours of nonstop work, Clement Ofosuhemeng remains deep in the process of putting his entire being into his role as Operation Smile Ghana’s patient coordinator.
As he spoke about his reason for taking on the daunting task of finding and serving patients and families affected by cleft in his country, you can see – and feel – the emotions ebb and flow within this soft-spoken and fervently-determined man.
“I see it as the only way to say thank you to my mother and then to humanity,” Clement says. “And I love doing it, and I don’t mind going to any length to get the patients.”
And he’s done just that with unprecedented success since he became involved with Operation Smile in 2015 – first as a volunteer before becoming a full-time member of the three-person Operation Smile Ghana staff alongside regional manager Sabrina Ghiddi and program coordinator Lucy Apeajei.
Clement’s “why” is as dramatic and powerful as it is engrained in the young Ghanaian activist.
As told to him by his grandmother, when Clement’s mother became pregnant with him, his father began having an affair with another woman. The woman then attempted to kill Clement’s mother by poisoning her food when she was six months pregnant.
The poison caused his mother to bleed profusely and she was rushed to a hospital. While she was unconscious, doctors decided that the only way to save her life was to abort Clement, who they believed would suffer life-threatening consequences. When Clement’s mother learned of the plan, she ran away from the hospital to a remote location to live for the remainder of her pregnancy.
Three months later, when she went into labor at the house where she was staying, no one was around to help deliver the baby.
“According to my mother, she said I’m the only child that when she was giving birth, she didn’t suffer at all. It was a smooth delivery,” Clement says. “Later, people came around and they rushed us to the hospital. And here I am. I don’t have any facial differences.…
“So when I was little, I was a stubborn child. There was one time that she sent me to go and fetch water for her, and I didn’t want to go.
“She told me: ‘Clement, do you know that I stood for you when you were in my womb? You need to stand for me, no matter what. I just need a glass of water and you don’t want to go.’ I was 10 years old by then and I asked her, ‘What do you mean by that?’ And she said that one day she would tell me.”
But tragedy struck before that day would come. Clement’s mother died while giving birth later that year. The reason: there was no doctor available to perform a life-saving cesarean section. Clement’s sibling died as well.
“So when I grew up, the thing that she used to tell me, I realized that it’s indeed true,” Clement says, holding back tears. “I told myself that if my mother stood for me when I was in her womb – she stood for me against all odds – what can I do for humanity?”
Clement’s opportunity came in 2015 while he was working on his postgraduate national service project in the accounting department at Korle Bu Teaching Hospital in Accra, Ghana.
Korle Bu is home to Ghana’s National Reconstructive Plastic Surgery and Burns Centre, which is headed by Operation Smile Ghana medical director Dr. Opoku Ampomah. A coworker, biomedical technician and Operation Smile Ghana volunteer Emmanuel Kumahor, introduced Clement to the organization, and he immediately became energized to volunteer.
Alongside Sabrina, Clement has helped to bring more than 300 potential patients to each medical mission in Ghana since he joined the organization. Their patient recruitment push for the April 2015 mission to Cape Coast, Clement’s first, proved to be pivotal.
Prior to that mission, patient turnout numbers were dwindling in Ghana, putting Operation Smile’s work in the country at risk. Both Clement and Sabrina knew that the patients and families were out there, mostly scattered around the thousands of remote villages in the country. However, they were just not being reached nor convinced – nor able – to receive Operation Smile’s care.
“When I heard that, I was saddened and I said, ‘Well, why? Is it true that there are no patients left in the country, or is it that something is not being done right? That might be the reason.’” Clement says. “So I said, ‘Okay, well, I have a very strong connection on the ground,’ and I put up a strategy that I thought would work.”
And it did.
The majority of people in Ghana are of Christian faith, and Clement’s uncle is a professional theological lecturer. Clement knew about the widespread and severe social stigma associated with cleft in the country, so he partnered with his uncle to raise awareness about both Operation Smile Ghana’s work and the true nature of cleft conditions – that they are a surgically-treatable medical conditions and not the results of supernatural curses – throughout his vast network of church leaders.
Clement and Sabrina also embarked on several awareness campaigns that brought this message of hope and healing to the most remote and impoverished communities throughout the country.
“There are places that when I go, cars don’t go there. So if I have to walk, I will walk. If I have to crawl, I will crawl. If I have to swim to that place, I will swim,” Clement says with stern conviction. “My mission is to go as far as I can go to spread the message wide, so that we will be able to help patients with cleft lip and cleft palate.”
Clement adds that Operation Smile Ghana isn’t just saving lives within the medical context.
“In Ghana, there are some cases that when mothers give birth to babies with cleft, they kill them. I must be frank. It’s hard to say, but that is the Gospel truth,” Clement says. “When someone gives birth to a baby with cleft, society frowns on them. They are rejected and isolated. People share derogatory remarks about them and point fingers at them. They are seen as not fit to be accepted as human beings.
“And I’ve been through all the regions in Ghana, and I can say for sure that the stigma runs through all the regions. They see them to be from the rivers. They see them to be from the smaller gods. They see them to be animals.
“Of course, if the person is educated, then that person knows that it is possible for surgery to be done. And if the person is also around people that are well-enlightened about this particular condition, then that person will get proper counsel.
“But what if that person happens to be in a community where they frown on such cases? That’s where the problem lies.”
Convincing naturally skeptical families and patients that they can trust Operation Smile is where Clement excels. Utilizing his persistent yet kind-hearted nature, he explains that the organization performs this work across Africa and around the world by showing them several Operation Smile foundations’ websites and before-and-after photos of past patients. He says that many conversations begin with patients and caregivers thinking it all sounds too good to be true, as the medical care is free and Operation Smile Ghana covers the expenses of travel to and from the mission as well as lodging and food during it. But most of the time, he’s eventually able to break through.
“I try my best to establish a very good rapport with them, so that they feel comfortable coming to me, comfortable calling me. I always call them – numerous calls, numerous counselling sessions so they feel that we are here for them,” Clement says. “We are with them to go through the procedure before the surgery, during the surgery and after the surgery. So it’s not only the surgery.”
Once patients and their caregivers arrive to the mission’s patient shelter, incredible transformations begin to take shape. In partnership with volunteers from the Peace Corps, Operation Smile Ghana takes special care to create a supportive community atmosphere among the families. They educate the attendees about cleft conditions and offer activities that have the potential to become income earning, such as tie-dying fabric and crafting beaded jewelry.
At the shelter during the November 2017 Koforidua mission, Clement calls for a group of patients and their families to gather in a circle. He asks for each of them to share their personal stories. As the group hangs on every word of their fellow mission attendees, the emotions are nearly palpable.
Clement says that the sharing of these experiences resonates far beyond the patient shelter and into the communities from where they came.
“When they come to the shelter and then they see so many people with cleft, it strengthens them. They may have thought that they were the only one with a cleft, but now what are they seeing?
People with various degrees of cleft. So at the shelter, it’s like a family.”
“Right from day one, I’m always with them. We crack jokes. I share my story with them. And sometimes, the stories they have are way more powerful than even mine…”
“When they return to their villages, I see them to be potential ambassadors to help erase the stigma. Now that they have received education about cleft, they can spread the information, the good news and the truth so that it will remove the negative perception that people have about cleft. So when I’m able to recruit more than 300 potential patients, I see them all as people that can help make the job work – to make information about Operational Smile go viral.”