Looking Back at 25: Esvin

Three years ago, he could barely breathe. Now he takes our breath away

When we last checked in with Esvin a year and a half ago, he was fresh off a miracle. At only 25 days old, Esvin had been so malnourished that his mother, Teresa, wasn’t sure if he would survive even one more hour. His cleft allowed so little milk to eke down his throat that her breastmilk dried up. He weighed less than four pounds. He was so weak he sometimes stopped breathing.

The nearest hospital was seven hours away.

She left at once. As this single mother took on overgrown, under-paved rainforest roads alone, Esvin remained still and fragile as a porcelain doll against her chest. When she at last arrived at the hospital, Esperanza de Vida, her breath caught in her throat a little from exhaustion, but more from witnessing the miracle in her arms: Esvin’s heart was still beating.

The team at Esperanza de Vida encounters many malnourished babies with clefts, but Esvin was one of the most severe cases they had ever seen. Thankfully, they knew exactly what to do because, as Smile Train partners, they had been specially trained and equipped for just this scenario.

Without wasting a precious breath, they fed Esvin what breastmilk they had in reserve and told Teresa they both needed to stay there — him for monitoring, her to learn how to feed her baby once he came home. Each day, Esvin ate a bit more. Each day, he crept nearer to a healthy weight, even if it seemed like trying to catch the light at the end of a very long tunnel.

Finally, after four months, Esvin had blossomed into a happy, chubby, 12-pound baby — and was cleared to go home!

Teresa and the whole team at Esperanza de Vida were ecstatic, but Esvin wasn’t strong enough yet for surgery. So last winter, we went back to the family’s village to check on them.

We’re happy to report that Esvin successfully received surgeries for his cleft lip and palate in December 2022. He is now a healthy, happy three-year-old who can eat anything he wants — and, usually, that’s the fresh tortillas he loves to make with Maria, his grandmother.

When not in the kitchen with her, he can usually be found outside playing with his many friends or his beloved chickens. He’s so full of energy, in fact, spends so many hours each day running and jumping and climbing and tinkering and hanging on things and pulling things apart that his family only worries about breathing now when they are panting after him, struggling to keep up.

Yet Esvin’s transformation is still not complete. Clefts don’t only affect babies’ ability to eat, breathe, and smile, they can also lead to permanent hearing loss, tooth decay, speech impediments, and more serious issues if not treated in time.

That’s why the cleft team at Esperanza de Vida has remained second family to Esvin and Teresa. He goes there every time he is sick, and they are always on guard for additional symptoms.

When Esvin began to babble, they recognized immediately the ways his cleft had left its mark on his budding speech. Treated early, children with clefts can learn to speak clearly, but left to persist, the issues can become hard-wired. They sprang into action, and Esvin is now enrolled in regular speech therapy so that he will grow up speaking and smiling with equal confidence.

If Esvin had been born before Smile Train was founded, his story might have gone very differently. Twenty-five years ago, cleft care in developing countries happened largely through outside doctors flying in then out of major cities on short-term mission trips. If a patient was too undernourished for surgery when the mission arrived or didn’t make it in time, they would have to wait for the next one and try again, if they could. If they required a follow-up surgery or specialized non-surgical care like speech therapy or orthodontics, they were largely out of luck.

In 1999, Smile Train arrived and changed everything. Now, instead of waiting for a time that worked for outside doctors, families in need could receive free, world-class cleft surgery at the best time for them from healthcare workers who understand their language and culture because they share it.

Our model of local empowerment and relationship has also made essential, long-term, non-surgical, comprehensive care possible, ensuring children like Esvin can not only smile, but thrive.

It’s how we’ve sponsored more cleft surgeries than every other charity combined — 1.9 million and counting — in 90+ countries in only 25 years.

And it’s why today, Teresa and Maria see a good, long life ahead for Esvin, full of countless more moments of taking their breath away.

That’s the power of cleft care that’s always there. That’s the power of Smile Train’s model. Donors like you make it possible.