Editor’s Note: In August, we covered Operation Smile in Madagascar’s first-ever surgical training rotation at Centre Hospitalier de Référence Régionale in Antsirabe. Since then, we have conducted five out of the six rotations scheduled for 2017. Building on Operation Smile’s commitment to strengthening health systems where it works, international teams of medical volunteers provide training to Malagasy health care professionals by providing safe surgery for children suffering from cleft conditions. Throughout the rotations, we’ve been receiving informative and inspirational field updates from Charlotte Steppling, the project manager for Operation Smile in Madagascar. In this two-part “From the Field” series, Charlotte shares the compelling stories of two patients who received surgery during the fourth rotation, which took place Sept. 23 through Sept. 29. This is the second story.
Ten years ago, Mampionona was born in a small village 230 kilometers west of Antananarivo.
“When he was born, his mother did not know what to say – she had just seen her sister die from illness. She was very emotional when her baby was born,” said Tantely, Mampionona’s aunt. “We named the boy Mampionona, which in Malagasy means ‘to heal and to comfort.’ This baby became our healing and our family’s comfort.”
As a newborn, Mampionona had difficult eating because of his cleft lip. His mother tried hard to feed him milk with a cup. At 6 months old, he started eating solid foods and was able to gain a good amount of weight.
“This child was a gift – a gift from god. God knew that our family needed something special,” Tantely said. “We had just lived through a traumatic death in the family and this baby was here to comfort us. He gave us a child with a cleft because he knew we could take care of him.”
The family had heard that in a larger town nearby, there was a local doctor that could offer cleft surgery.
“But the surgery was so expensive,” Tantely said. “We tried saving up, but then ended up spending money on chickens, rice and household items. We never thought there would be a solution.”
In August, Tantely was invited to a wedding in another city. At the wedding, she met a young mother who was rocking her baby girl in her arms. Making pleasantries, Tantely asked her, “That is a beautiful baby, how old is she? Is she your only child?”
Tantely’s eyes widened as she glanced at the baby’s face.
“Does – does – did your baby have a cleft?” The words stumbled out of her mouth.
The mother of the baby nodded yes. She explained that not even two months prior she had gone to Antsirabe and received free surgery from Operation Smile.
Later that day, Tantely called Operation Smile in Madagascar’s hotline number. She spoke to Flex Manantsoa, the patient coordinator for Operation Smile in Madagascar and registered her nephew in the database.
One month later, Flex gave Mampionona’s family a call to inform them that he would have the chance to receive surgery at surgical training rotation being held in late September. The family was elated.
“I couldn’t believe it!” Tantely said. “I decided that I would accompany Mampionona to Antsirabe. His mother was pregnant and his grandma cannot travel long distances, so it was my duty to bring him.”
Before Mampionona arrived at the patient village on Friday afternoon, he had never seen another person with a cleft. He told his aunt, “Can you believe it? Look at this village – everyone looks like me! Everyone has a cleft. Even the small kids, even the babies, and even the adults – they all look like me!”
Mampionona went through screening and was selected for surgery. During the week, they met and talked with other families about their experiences.
“We all agree that it is such a relief to be here,” Tantely said. “To be taken care of by such nice people, and everything is free. From a place to sleep to soap to wash ourselves. We are so thankful.”
The following week, Mampionona returned to his village. It will be a big change for the villagers who have always known him for his unique cleft.
“They don’t believe we are really getting surgery – they think that to receive surgery I must give a piece of my thigh to put on Mampionona’s lip! Can you imagine? I mean, I would still give a piece of my thigh if I had too! People will be so shocked and surprised to see him. To see him smile. To see him look like everyone else,” Tantely said.
“I am going to tell everyone about this experience. I am going to find more people more children like Mampionona. I thank everyone on the Operation Smile team. Thank you for giving Mampionona the gift of smiling like all other children. Thank you!”