April 25th, 2009
09:41 AM ET

Kissing a cleft lip goodbye- Adnan's Journey, Part I



By Nicole Lapin

CNN.com Live anchor


[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/images/04/24/art.blog.adnan-saleh.jpg caption="Mohammed Saleh brought his son, Adnan, to Operation Smile. "I just want my son to have the chance,"he said."]In the middle of a crowded hospital hallway in Alexandria, Egypt, Adnan's  blue eyes pop.  He is sitting on the lap of his father, Mohammed Saleh.  Saleh looks at me and then at his pregnant wife next to him.  "I hope the new one doesn't have this condition," he says in his broken English.


 "This condition" refers to his son's cleft lip.   The Salehs are one of the more than 200 families who showed up at Shark Al Madina Hospital to try to receive free treatment for their child's cleft lip and/or palate.  It is Operation Smile's first mission in this city and the turnout is higher than expected.  


“I don’t know why he has it,” Saleh mutters as he kisses his 7-month-old son’s forehead.  I wish I had an answer for him.  I try telling him in my broken Arabic that the organization says it’s a combination of genetic, environmental and nutritional factors.  It means little to a father just trying to fix whatever caused his son’s deformity.


The global rate of cleft lip and/or palate is about 1 in every 750 births.  Unlike in the United States, the corrective surgery is costly and hard to come by in countries like Egypt.  I am here with an Operation Smile volunteer group- a mix of accomplished plastic surgeons, nurses and pediatricians from all over the world- aiming to change that for kids like Adnan. 


Running on adrenaline and Turkish coffee, the volunteers transformed one corner of the hospital into an eight-step screening process on the first day of the mission.  Benches turned into registration centers.  Markers and recycled paper became locator signs: “Vitals,” “Dental,” “Anesthesiologist.”  A bed sheet, beach ball and coloring book looked like an indoor playground in no time.


Women dressed in full hijab wait hours for their children to have a chance at getting the surgery.  An older woman walks up to me so fast she nearly stumbles over her long skirt.  “My grandson, my grandson, look, look,” she yells, holding the advertisement that appeared in a local paper in one hand and a wallet full of his pictures in the other.


The team will do approximately 175 surgeries during this mission.  Not everyone from two days of screening receives an operation.  The organization prioritizes the kids getting screened based on their chances for a successful recovery. 


The Salehs are Number 27 in this process.  I start following them when they got their number at 7 a.m.  They finish around noon and before they leave I ask Adnan’s father what he wants his son to be when he grows up.   Saleh answers quickly, “Whatever will make him happy.”  I say, “So, a doctor, lawyer, policeman…?”  He nods, “I just want my son to have the chance.”


A child whose cleft lip goes untreated will carry a social stigma in much of the world.  Some cultures believe it is “a curse” or “God’s will.”  A child  whose cleft palate, an actual split on the roof of his or her mouth, goes untreated can have difficulty eating and speaking.  In some pockets of the globe where malnutrition is prevalent, some of those youngsters won’t survive.   


I hear the last prayer call of the day echo outside the seaside hospital – that means it is 8 in the evening.  I just found out that Adnan has been accepted to surgery.  It’s scheduled for Saturday morning.  I can’t wait to see what he looks like when he smiles with more than just his eyes. 


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Filed under: Children's Health • Global Health • Parenting • Pregnancy

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