In 2007, Cristina Solano of Quito, Ecuador decided to take time off from her work as a multimedia designer to prepare for the birth of her first child. At a scheduled ultrasound, tests showed that her son would be born with a cleft lip and palate — conditions she had never heard of. Cristina quit her job and started learning everything she could about clefts and how she could best help her son.
When Cristina told her relatives what had happened, she was upset to find that instead of offering love and support, they blamed the clefts on her decision to wait to have children. Thinking the medical community might be able to look past assigning blame and give solid solutions to her, Cristina talked to 16 surgeons in the area. She recalled, “I received no help or comfort whatsoever from these doctors — one surgeon told me that, in other countries, children like mine are thrown into the river and another suggested that I must have smoked while pregnant.” Thankfully, Cristina’s final meeting was also her best — renowned surgeon Dr. Pablo Dávalos assured her that her son would be okay and his cleft was to no fault of her own.
When Cristina gave birth to her son, Martin, the new mother was pleased to see that one of her first visitors was Dr. Dávalos, who arrived with a tool for Martin’s first cleft treatment — a nasoalveolar mold used to stop the cleft lip from spreading. Cristina remembers, “Dr. Dávalos was like a father to me during that time.”
As Dr. Dávalos predicted, Martin went on to have successful cleft surgeries (and he’s completely thriving today). However, the experience changed Cristina’s path forever — rather than going back to her old life, she wanted to give unconditional love and support to other mothers of children born with clefts. The timing was perfect, as Dr. Dávalos became a Smile Train partner and he started Hospital de Día Niños de la Mano de María — the only hospital in Quito concentrated solely on cleft lip and palate.
As a former President of the Ecuadorian Society of Plastic Surgeons, Dr. Dávalos had his vast network refer cleft patients to the new hospital, and it wasn’t long before they’d provide a Smile Train funded surgery every week. Many of the nervous families are personally greeted by Cristina, who often remains throughout the day to offer support.
In 2012, Dr. Dávalos asked Cristina to start a Smile Train funded speech services unit at the hospital, which she still provides to this day at no cost to the families, alongside her friend Cristina Vanegas. “I thought I could do it, as I’ve been in the room for Martin’s speech treatments for years. I just went online and started teaching myself,” she said. Cristina has since started an online speech therapy degree program and will graduate next year.
In 2017, Cristina and Mrs. Vanegas furthered their ability to help the families of cleft patients when they completed a Smile Train sponsored ‘Train the Trainer’ program on cleft palate feeding by Columbia University Professor Dr. Cate Crowley.
Cristina says of her nearly ten-year relationship with Smile Train, “I’m very grateful to have a child born with a cleft because it’s given me the opportunity to find hundreds of families who need help, but don’t know that Smile Train funding is available. I think more than anything, people need to be comforted and reassured that everything is going to be alright — I have Martin as proof that their children will be fine.”
In 2018, Christina became an inaugural member of the Smile Train Cleft Community Advisory Council — a collection of members of the cleft community dedicated to informing cleft positive messaging and materials. Christina’s extensive knowledge and personal connection to cleft has been invaluable to the group.
The next step for the Hospital de Día Niños de la Mano de María team is to further expand services and integrate orthodontic and psychological support to provide comprehensive care to the children and their families.