This story contains references to attempted self-harm and may not be suitable for all audiences.
Way up in the Peruvian Andes, amid the steep slopes and rugged ruins of the former Inca Empire, Michela and Jorje lived in a single, 12-square-foot room with their two kids and another on the way. The pregnancy was fraught from the beginning. She started hemorrhaging in just her second month; by five months, she lost so much blood she needed to be hospitalized for a blood transfusion; one month later, she needed to be rushed twelve hours away to Lima for an emergency cesarean section.
In a miracle, both Michela and her baby survived the birth but the doctors had a secret they weren’t sure the fragile mother was ready for. “Nobody warned me about the cleft,” she said. “When I first saw him, I fainted and had to wait another day to meet him. No one else has had a cleft in our families, and we were all the more surprised because I’d had several ultrasounds and it wasn’t picked up. So we had no time to prepare for it.”
“When I first saw Anghelo, he was so small and weighed less than three pounds,” Jorje remembers. “He was lying in an incubator and covered in tubes. Neither of us could make sense of our feelings or our situation.”
Anghelo spent his first months in and out of the NICU. The couple alternated visits to his bedside so at least one of them could earn money while the other looked after him. And while they worried about their son’s health in the hospital, what truly terrified them was the knowledge that they would soon take him home with no idea of how to care for him.
Even in intensive care, Anghelo choked on milk because of his cleft and needed to be fed a special formula through a tube and a bottle. These special supplies came at a cost, which the family’s insurance did not cover. “Sometimes, we didn’t have enough money to pay for the tubes or the diapers and the doctors at the hospital would scold us because we didn’t bring them,” remembered Michela.
One night, this shame and fear so overwhelmed Michela that she walked to a nearby bridge and dangled one foot over the narrow edge. She closed her eyes and was just about to release her trembling fingers from the railing when, miraculously, a stranger took notice of her and talked her down. “In that moment, I wasn’t thinking of anything. Not even about my other children. Nothing.”
Thankfully, Michela was able to see a hospital psychiatrist after that incident. Coming to understand that her son’s cleft was not her fault freed her from the guilt that had been eating at her since his birth. Though she still feared she wouldn’t be able to give him all the care he needed, by the time Anghelo was released from the hospital at three months old, Michela no longer doubted that she could give him all the love she had, which was far more than she ever knew.
“I still didn’t know how to feed him properly, and the hospital staff never really taught me. It was a matter of life and death, so I tried to feed him with the bottle and luckily it worked, but it was still difficult because he didn’t gain weight easily because of his cleft palate.”
Though a baby’s first cleft surgery ideally happens at three months, Anghelo wasn’t healthy enough to receive his until he was two years old, and he only received it then because his parents’ devotion to his care was matched only by local Smile Train partner Misión Caritas Felices (MCF)’s determination to leave no Peruvian with a cleft behind.
Based in Lima, MCF climbs every mountaintop to offer every child with a cleft in the country surgeries, nutritional support, speech therapy, and every other treatment they need to not only smile, but thrive — all for free — thanks to Smile Train’s support.
For families like Anghelo’s, that local care makes all the difference. Though his first cleft surgery was successful, he still needed extensive aftercare to fully recover. Because Smile Train supports and trains local providers like MCF, their cleft specialists were always there to check in with the family as needed to ensure Anghelo’s recovery was proceeding smoothly. With their guidance, Anghelo was cleared to receive his second cleft surgery just a few months later, at the exact moment he was ready for it.
“We prayed a lot that someone would give Anghelo the surgery he needed. We’d already been rejected twice, and we’d spent so much money traveling. So you can imagine how happy we were when he was finally accepted,” Jorje said.
Today, Anghelo is a healthy, happy five-year-old who loves to draw and always has his head in the clouds — literally. Watching him zoom up and down the craggy mountainsides with boundless breath and energy, his face alight with a grin sparkling as the snow blanketing the peaks of the Andes, you would never know that if his family had had to rely on mission-based organizations for care, he might still be confined to his one-room house, still gravely underweight, and still looking longingly at those same clouds for the treatment he needed to one day arrive.
“We’re trying very hard to make sure Anghelo receives all the treatment he needs and we’re immensely grateful to Smile Train’s donors, because we wouldn’t have been able to do it without their support,” said Jorje. “There are so many other children and adults who need the same help as my son, and so often they don’t even know about the treatment. May you continue to make treatment possible in more remote areas.”
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