Two Pandemics Can’t Stop Chiara’s Smile

Smile Train

Edith had already given birth to two daughters, but nothing could have prepared her for Chiara. The newborn had a hole in the roof of her mouth and a gap in her lip. When Edith tried to feed her, she choked on the milk, and it dribbled out her nose. She needed medical attention before it was too late.

Fortunately, the doctors whisked Chiara away to the emergency unit shortly after she was born to fit her for a feeding tube.

Chiara before cleft surgery

Edith and Julio, her husband, then spent Chiara’s first few days in desperate search of the special bottle her doctors said she needed to eat and a hospital that would perform the surgery she needed to live. After a lot of effort, they managed to find the special bottle. And while their doctors did help them book Chiara for surgery at a local hospital, the swine flu pandemic hit Peru just then and the surgery date was delayed for three months.

“That was too long for us to wait,” said Edith.

Answered Prayers

They searched for an alternative and soon found Asociación Civil Mision Caritas Felices (MCF), who promised that Chiara would receive cleft surgery and all the other cleft care she would ever need for free thanks to their partnership with Smile Train. Then they promptly scheduled Chiara’s first surgery for when she turned two months old. Two months was better than three, but the thought of having to keep this child who could barely eat healthy and well-fed for even that long loomed over Edith like the Andes themselves. But there was no mountain she wouldn’t climb for her daughter.

More than 60 sleepless nights later, Edith, Julio, and Chiara came to MCF for the first time, and Edith nearly collapsed in shock. The waiting room was filled with babies with clefts and their parents — how was it possible that there so many other families like hers? And though she had been anxious that Chiara would be found too underweight for surgery, many of these babies appeared dangerously malnourished.

“I prayed for my daughter and for all these children to get the surgery,” Edith recalled. When they called Chiara’s number and the doctors examined her, Edith suddenly felt calmer than she had since she first saw her daughter’s cleft.

Chiara after her second cleft surgery, at five years old

Chiara was cleared for treatment. Two days later, she received the surgery that changed her life, courtesy of Smile Train’s donors around the world. “I’ll never forget it,” Edith said. “I got very emotional during the surgery; we had been through a lot with my daughter, then there she was, healthy.”

A Resilient Model for a Resilient Model Student

The surgery healed well. Though Chiara no longer had problems eating, her cleft still impeded her speech and her team at MCF knew she would still need several more surgeries to truly smile her brightest. This is an advantage of Smile Train. Unlike traditional mission-trip-based charities that only offer urgent cleft care to a lucky few when they happen to fly into a region, our model of empowering local healthcare workers means that help is available for every patient at the exact time they need it.

Edith, Julio, and Chiara today

This allowed Chiara to grow up happy and healthy and her parents to rest assured that she would never miss a treatment or fall behind.

With cleft treatment, Chiara can focus more on schoolwork

Chiara had a second surgery when she turned five, just before she started school. It went a long way toward helping her learn and smile with confidence, but bullies still sometimes harassed her, and she often struggled to be understood because of how her cleft impeded her speech.

Chiara tending her family's store

Again, Smile Train was there, with free specialized speech therapy at MCF. Chiara was excited to begin her sessions when, for the second time, a pandemic came between her and the care she needed. This time, it was COVID-19.

Chiara's smartphone has made it possible for her to receive the Smile Train-supported speech therapy she needs during the pandemic

But here, too, Smile Train’s model made all the difference. Because our partners are part of the communities they work in, Smile Train was swiftly able to get them the tools they needed— like PPE and telehealth technologies — to safely provide the cleft care their patients needed from the earliest days of the pandemic until today. For Chiara, this meant she could receive MCF speech therapy online. After over a year of hard work and practice, she can now easily pronounce “S”’s and vowels and other sounds that were once a struggle.

Pawing it Forward

Chiara is still a few months away from her third surgery, but she’s not letting that slow her down. Her speech sessions helped her do even better in school, and now she looks forward to dedicating her life to passing on the kindness she has received to some of the most vulnerable members of society.

Chiara and Sasha

“When I grow up, I want to be a vet because I want to rescue a lot of animals, animals that are hurt, that have babies that might suffer,” Chiara told us. “My dog, Sasha, is 13 and I spoil her and take very good care of her because I want her to live a long time. I love her.”

Edith, Chiara, Sasha, and Julio

“I think she has the best goals for the future,” Julio beamed. “I’d like to thank Smile Train and MCF for bringing happiness to us and to so many parents here in Peru. I want to thank you all infinitely, with all of my heart.”

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