The brave teenager was sitting in the corner of the hallway away from other children. A long, torn cloth covered his face, more specifically his mouth. After slowly approaching him, I sat down right next to him. He shifted slightly away from me with a sheepish wide asymmetric grin on his face. As I began to converse with him through a translator, it became obvious he did not want to talk directly to me. His gaze darting in every direction except towards me. His shyness was palpable.
For 16 years of his life, this kid has had to live with a complete cleft lip. Through the translators, I was told that he is extremely shy and does not like to interact with people in general that he does not know. It does not take much to figure out why. There is a gaping hole in his face that makes him look like a monster to those not used to seeing a cleft lip.
I am a plastic surgeon from New Jersey, but as a middle-aged father of two teenagers, I felt a strange affinity to this boy among all the others that I had treated all week long in this remote region of the Philippines. Puberty aside, generally teenagers are working hard to just discover themselves during this transformative period of their lives. In addition to all the usual teenage angst, this child has to deal with an un-repaired cleft lip too. What a burden that must be for him. This kid was my hero, and I let him know it.
I looked towards his mother and sister standing next to him, and they confirmed every stereotype that one can imagine. He has been called every name in the book. His family is concerned about what this would mean for him if he remained like this. I explained to his family that we have assembled an amazing, dedicated team Destination Hope. We are here to help correct this issue for their son.
The surgery was unremarkable, and he did well. About one-hour post surgery, I went to the recovery room to visit him. He was sitting up in bed, and he looked comfortable. As I approached him, one of the recovery room nurses handed him a pocket mirror.
I sat next to him as he looked into the mirror for the first time. He kept staring at his face in all angles. He then looked up at me with a tight smile … a new smile … a complete smile, as he formed words in his native Tagalog with his newly repaired cleft lip and with a bit more confidence … “Salamat po doctor” … “Thank you, doctor.” I gave him my signature fist bump with a huge grin on my own face.
For one second, I did not want to be his surgeon, I felt more like a father who just removed a huge obstacle out of this child’s path.
Bhupesh Vasisht is a plastic surgeon.
Image credit: Bhupesh Vasisht