x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

‘Children would stare and say: look at the girl’s lip’

Kerloot Udawatte, whose daughter was born with a cleft lip, says the stigma will be removed only by talking about the condition

Kerloot Udawatte with her daughter Aaheli, who has had surgery for a cleft lip. Mrs Udawatte says the most important part of treating the condition at first is accepting it for what it is. Razan Alzayani / The National
Kerloot Udawatte with her daughter Aaheli, who has had surgery for a cleft lip. Mrs Udawatte says the most important part of treating the condition at first is accepting it for what it is. Razan Alzayani / The National

DUBAI // The Udawattes’ flat has a wall filled with pictures of their young daughter, including some from when she had a cleft lip.

Kerloot Udawatte believes that the stigma surrounding the condition will be removed only by talking about it.

When Aaheli was born with a cleft lip in 2011, her mother searched the internet for pictures of how doctors in the UAE had helped children, but it was futile.

“Parents don’t want to take pictures for study purposes,” said the Sri Lankan spa manager, who has lived in Dubai for eight years.

“I understand it’s sensitive but when I went through websites I couldn’t see any pictures that would help me as a mother make up my mind.

“I feel I owe it to other parents in similar positions to talk about it because it is nothing to be ashamed of and can be changed.”

A cleft lip and palate occurs when a baby’s lip or mouth does not form properly, causing problems with feeding and talking. It can also cause ear infections and hearing loss.

An effort is under way to compile a UAE database of the number of children and adults with cleft lips and palates.

The condition affects as many as one in every 500 babies globally, with one in 10 babies born with a cleft not making it to their first birthday, says the charity group Operation Smile.

It can affect all nationalities but is often found in children of Asian or Native American origin.

Mrs Udawatte said taking Aaheli outdoors to play had been unsettling, but accepting the condition was crucial.

“Yes she had a deficiency when she was born but this can be fixed,” said Mrs Udawatte.

“It really does affect the family when children or adults stare. Children don’t understand so they would come close to her and say, ‘Look at the girl’s lip.’

“But we were not ashamed of it and talked about what the condition was.”

Several UAE doctors recommended surgery at three months for Aaheli. Mrs Udawatte consulted six doctors and several parents before selecting Dr Sanjay Parashar.

Aaheli, nearly 3, had her operation when she was six months old and needed consultations for up to a year.

“Now when you look at her you can’t say she ever had a cleft lip because there is just a small line,” Mrs Udawatte said.

“It is very important to find a doctor who you are comfortable with, understands your budget, explains the procedure in detail, talks about after effects and is realistic.”

She is pleased that surgeons in Dubai are helping to heal poor children and other patients in India.

“It’s about fixing a child’s future, her smile – this will stay with a child for life,” Mrs Udawatte said. “And corporate social responsibility is not something everyone does.

“So fixing kids with cleft lips and helping burn patients to recover is like taking responsibility for someone else’s life.”

rtalwar@thenational.ae