x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Operation Smile comes to UAE to heal smiles and change lives

An international charity that provides free surgery and aftercare for children and young adults born with facial clefts has established a branch in the UAE.

Gia Navas, 11, has had several surgeries for a cleft lip and palate at the Operation Smile headquarters in Abu Dhabi.
Gia Navas, 11, has had several surgeries for a cleft lip and palate at the Operation Smile headquarters in Abu Dhabi.

ABU DHABI // When Luis and Estela Navas recalled the birth of their first daughter, they both broke down in tears.

The usual feelings of exultation at the arrival of a newborn were replaced with confusion and concern.

Luis had arrived at the hospital just after the C-section to be greeted by the shocked faces of relatives.

"I turned to the doctor and she said: 'We have a problem. The mum and baby are OK but there is a problem - your daughter was born a little bit different'.

"I said: 'I want to see her, I want to see her'. I breathed again when I saw her because my first impression was, 'Is that it?'

"Estela was already very nervous. She knew something was wrong. She was crying, 'Why can't I see my baby?'

"The first thing I told her was, 'We have a nice baby girl. She is beautiful. She is healthy but she came with a detail.'

"I would rather see it as a detail, as a gift from God. As one doctor said to us, 'She was placed with the right parents to treat this'."

The Venezuelan couple's baby, Gia, now 11, was born with a cleft lip and palate, a condition that affects one in 700 babies in developed countries and one in 500 in developing countries. Conditions such as this, in which a part of the lip or palate inside the mouth is missing, can cause difficulty feeding, and one in 10 affected babies do not reach their first birthday.

But Gia was lucky. Her parents were determined she would survive, initially feeding her with a syringe and then getting in touch with Operation Smile - an international children's charity that offers free surgery and aftercare to those affected by clefts, and which is setting up in the UAE.

Luis, a cement engineer in Venezuela, was able to pay for the first operation when Gia was six months old, and the organisation paid for the following two when she turned 6 and 10.

"It was a huge relief to see my daughter in safe hands. If Operation Smile was not in Venezuela I don't think I would have been able to pay. It was going to be difficult," said Luis, 41, who moved to Abu Dhabi in August last year to be a cement engineer for an oil company.

The couple, who have two other children, said passers-by used to recoil with shock when they looked at their baby. Instead of being angry, Estela, 38, would invite them to look again, and explain the situation.

The parents also instilled confidence in their daughter to help her to cope with teasing. She is a happy girl, eager to test out her rapidly improving English skills. "The people in Operation Smile are very good people," said Gia, who will undergo more surgery in the future.

The charity, set up in 1982 in the United States, has provided free surgery for more than 200,000 children and young adults in more than 60 countries.

It was established in the UAE in January last year under the patronage of Sheikha Al Jazia bint Saif, wife of Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, and Morag Cromey-Hawke was given the task of setting it up.

Ms Cromey-Hawke, 55, now executive director of Operation Smile UAE, said it had intended initially to recruit medical volunteers to go on missions abroad and to raise funds in the UAE, but the charity's presence here prompted phone calls from expatriate families affected by the condition.

"Many of the insurances don't cover it because they believe it's cosmetic or it's classed as a congenital birth defect and so is excluded from being covered by the policy," she said.

Cleft lips and palates affect all nationalities but occur more often in children of Asian, Latino or Native American descent, the charity says.

Children with clefts often cannot speak properly and are shunned, malnutrition can be a problem and many are not able or allowed to go to school.

Operation Smile UAE hopes to provide surgery and aftercare for children in the country by early next year, while also compiling data on how many people are affected.

ecleland@thenational.ae