Cleft Lip surgeries change lives in Myanmar

“My mom told the midwife to kill the baby,” Thin said. Thin’s mom feared her grandson would not grow up as a normal child because of his cleft lip.

She didn’t know how he would eat, since he couldn’t breastfeed and worried he would be teased when he got older. Neither Thin nor her mom had seen anyone with a cleft lip in their remote village in Myanmar, and the village believed the physical deformity was a sign that the family was cursed.

But the midwife assured the family that Thin’s son, Kaung, would survive. Kaung, now four years old, was one of more than 40 patients who recently had surgery through the Samaritan’s Purse Cleft Lip and Palate Surgery Project in Myanmar.

This is the team’s first year working with cleft lip patients in Asia. Since 2011, Samaritan’s Purse has sent volunteer medical teams to perform the surgery – at no cost – for hundreds of qualifying patients in countries such as South Sudan, Bolivia, and Liberia.

A parent’s love

Kaung’s family was so desperate to repair his cleft lip that his father took a dangerous job on a fishing boat. He is gone for a year at a time on a rickety bamboo boat, and anyone who gets sick and is unable to work risks being drowned. “I have no contact while he’s on the boat,” Thin said. “It’s like going to war.”*

Thin works hard as a daily laborer, picking up work on other people’s farms. She also tries to sell vegetables, but sometimes people in her community don’t buy from her since they think the family is cursed.

As hard as Thin and her husband have worked, it still wasn’t enough to come close to paying for Kaung to have surgery through regular healthcare channels. Thin is now relieved that this medical team freely provides her son the opportunity to live a normal life, including getting an education without being mocked by his peers.

“I am happy to come here,” she said. “I want my son to have a good life.”

Dr. Tom Boeve of Samaritan's Purse examine's Kaung's lip during morning rounds

Thuang sees himself for the first time after surgery.

Never too late

Thaung, 50, has been a rice farmer all his life, just as his parents and grandparents were farmers. “We have to work hard in the fields,” he said. “It’s very difficult to grow crops because of the insects.” When Thaung was a teenager his parents tried to provide him cleft lip surgery, but the surgery was more than they could raise. They were already struggling to support six children and experienced further setbacks after several years of crops were ruined by pests.

Some people told Thaung that his lip was deformed as punishment for something he had done in his past life, a common Buddhist teaching. Thaung was ashamed of how he looked. As he got older he became more shy, afraid, and embarrassed to go out in public. “I slowly moved away from friends and a community of people,” he said.

Thaung’s village is about a one-hour drive from the nearest doctor. He’d never even visited a hospital. He had no access to surgery, and even if he had, Thaung had no way to afford it. He had given up hope of ever having his lip mended and losing the shame that accompanied his cleft lip.

Thaung was one of the first patients the Samaritan’s Purse medical team saw in Myanmar. Before his successful surgery, the tears in his eyes and the smile on his face reflected what he had been missing all his life – hope.

“I’m so happy I can’t even speak,” Thaung said.

No longer abandoned

Ngwe is five years old. Her mother abandoned her, and because her father has health issues, her extended family helps to care for her. This family of rice farmers wanted Ngwe to have the cleft lip operation, but the extra expense was more than they could ever have afforded.

Ngwe’s aunt, Khaing, who accompanied her to the hospital for surgery, said the family was sad and afraid and cried many tears when a baby with a cleft lip was born into their family. Some people in the village said the birth defect was her mother’s fault. The people in their village also tease Ngwe, so much so that the family has not sent her to school, even though she should have started last year.

But that will all be different after her life-changing surgery.

“She’s very excited about starting school,” Khaing said.

Please pray for the cleft lip patients in Myanmar as they continue to recover and heal. Pray that they are welcomed and accepted into their communities and that their lives are marked by renewed hope.

*Thin’s husband is expected to return in October, at which time he should not have to go back on that dangerous boat again.

Ngwe and her aunt look at photos of nurse Carol Pollock, who was also born with a cleft lip.
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