Jaime first saw clefts on TV. The show featured twin babies, each with a cleft. He couldn’t imagine it. The next day, at his wife, Diana’s, seven-month ultrasound, he saw another baby with a cleft on screen. This time, it was truly unimaginable.
When their doctor told them the news, Diana looked up at Jaime, confused and afraid. Though he knew exactly what it was, he couldn’t answer her question. He couldn’t even breathe.
Thankfully, the doctor knew what to say, and recommended them to Clinica Noel, Smile Train’s partner in Medellín and the hospital that he assured them was “the best in Colombia.”
Though Valery was not born at Clinica Noel, a doctor from Clinica Noel came to the hospital to be with Diana and Jaime that day and to explain what they should expect next.
Valery’s cleft made her choke on Diana’s milk. She would have been at severe risk of malnutrition had her team at Clinica Noel not stepped in. They taught Diana how to feed her daughter so that milk went down her throat and not out her nose or into her lungs and provided her with bottles specially designed for babies with clefts. With this support, Valery was healthy enough to receive her first cleft surgery at three months, the earliest safe time.
She had a second vital cleft surgery around the time she turned one. And because children with clefts usually struggle to speak even after surgery, she began Smile Train-sponsored speech therapy from specially trained experts almost as soon as she began to talk.
Down and Out
When the time came to begin school, Valery was so excited she couldn’t sleep. She felt ready — her surgeries were world-class, and she was working hard and making real progress with her speech therapy. But bullies notice everything, even the faintest scar under a shy girl’s lip or the nasality in her voice. School was hell from the first day. Classmates didn’t just bully her; they physically attacked her. And they didn’t stop there; they even came after her little brother, Andreas.
Again, Valery could not sleep. She could not eat, either; she forced tiny spoonfuls of food into her mouth just to throw them up so she could call in sick from school. She grasped for any excuse to stay home.
“If she didn’t sleep, obviously I would sleep even less because I was watching her,” Diana said.
It was too much for a first grader. Her parents pulled her out of school before second grade so she could spend her time in happier places, grow and find her passions around people who care for her. She learned swimming, volleyball, dance, and theater, each of which boosted her confidence. Each of which allowed her to finally learn. But the place where she was happiest, and the place where she learned the most, was always Clinica Noel.
Healing the Whole Child, and the Whole Family
Clinica Noel is a world leader in psychosocial services for children with clefts and their families. In regular meetings with counselors, Valery, Diana, Jaime, and Andreas each learned how to handle their trauma in their own way. They also encouraged Diana to continue enrolling Valery in community activities that would help her better integrate socially and build her self-esteem.
Valery ended up missing second and third grade. At age eight, she started fourth grade at a new school. Though still shy, her new sense of self shone through. Not coincidentally, that is also around the time she met Camila Osorio, a pediatric psychologist at Clinica Noel.
Camila quickly became Valery’s most trusted friend and confidant, someone she could talk and vent to each week in confidence. Just as transformative, Camila also introduced the family to the Life Project at Clinica Noel, which she manages.
So Much More Than a Cosmetic Change
The Life Project builds a community of cleft-affected children and their families in Medellín. Valery and her family go to as many events as they can. In just the past few years, they have painted t-shirts, colored mandalas, crafted face masks, made pizzas, and so much else.
“The pizza session was very cool because we learned about each other. I talked a lot with the girl I made the pizza with. We told each other our life stories,” Valery said, adding that meeting other children with clefts “motivates me a lot and sometimes makes me sad.”
Though Valery has loved every workshop she has attended, a recent one on applying make-up was particularly special. She got to put make-up on her mother, and, at the end, participants were challenged to go home and make a video of themselves putting on make-up, with the winner getting a whole make-up kit. “I felt pure happiness when I won,” Valery beamed.
“We have done many activities and they strengthen us as a family,” Diana said. “Those spaces are super important, super cool. The most exciting part is that we get to meet other cleft-affected families and hear their stories and their struggles and relate to them.”
For Camila, that’s the whole point. “An important part of what we do is to give parents their own support system,” she said. “What we try to be able to do with every activity is engage parents and siblings to be able to form that support system.”
Now 13, Valery walks the halls of her school with confidence and a smile, and why shouldn’t she? Everyone at school knows about her cleft and supports and encourages her through her treatment journey; she is surrounded by friends in every class.
Valery plans to be a surgeon when she grows up “to help more children with clefts and motivate them.”
Jaime and Diana believe bullying is born of ignorance and fear. So they are always on the lookout for opportunities educate their friends and neighbors about clefts and direct other cleft-affected families to Clinica Noel.
“If it wasn’t for Smile Train and Clinica Noel, I don’t know what would have become of us. They strengthened Valery in a way that empowered not only her, but us as well. To all of Smile Train’s donors, we say thank you, really. We have infinite thanks,” Diana said.
Thinking back over his daughter’s and his family’s cleft journey from that fateful ultrasound, Jaime is again left speechless. “We don’t have to say words — look at her. Gratitude. It’s just gratitude.”
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