“I like how it looks. I feel like a different person,” Matilde (above) said after her cleft lip repair. Our first patient in Bolivia, the 45-year-old woman has endured decades of stigma—at one point, her community even accused her of being a witch.
“The community will be happy, especially my 10-year-old daughter,” Matilde said. “We’ve gone to the city together, and everyone looks at me. That’s been a worry to my daughter.” Matilde now looks forward to going into town without fear of people making fun of her. Life is changing for Matilde.
Parents in Bolivia are often scared and confused about what to do when a child is born with a cleft lip or palate. In many cases, they do not have the funds to seek repairs and are at the mercy of an overwhelmed public health system.
Amalia was distraught when Ashly (above, pink knit hat) was born and thought about abandoning her. Her husband steadied her, encouraging her with the assurance that they would find a way to get the surgery their little one needed. That opportunity finally came in October thanks to Samaritan’s Purse.
When Amalia’s husband dropped off her and Ashly at the clinic, he was crying. “I believe they were tears of joy,” Amalia said. In the past, hospitals would tell them to wait—Ashly was not ready. “He could not believe this was her time.”
Before Ashly’s surgery, Amalia said: “It would have been a great mistake to abandon her. I’m going to fight for her, whatever it takes for her to be a normal person.”
Post-surgery, Amalia was pleased and excited, “Even right now I can see the difference—how she looks like another baby.”
Two-year-old Ana (above) was among those who had a fistula closed during our Bolivia campaign. (In this case, a fistula refers to a hole that has opened between the mouth and nose.)
“I have to clean her face every second,” said her mother, Sandusa, before the operation. Because of the gap from the roof of Ana’s mouth to her nasal cavity, liquids would leak through her nose while drinking—a daily, painful experience that is now remedied post-surgery.
Sandusa, 38, understands her daughter’s pain as she too had a cleft lip, which was repaired at age 13. When little Ana was born, Sandusa, a Christian believer, told the Lord, “You blessed me, but what about my daughter?”
The Samaritan’s Purse medical team was glad to be a part of God’s healing answer to that question while in Bolivia.
Our team of 13 medical personnel worked hard to perform 29 surgeries in a week. Some of the cleft lip repairs can be finished in an hour or less while cleft palate repairs may take significantly longer. The follow-up care provided by our partners in Bolivia makes the complicated palate operations worthwhile.
Though the aesthetic change is not as dramatic as a first-time lip repair, the palate work and related fistula closures are functionally more significant. These surgeries can result in big improvements in swallowing and in language development—especially when accompanied by appropriate therapy.
“The palate has everything to do with speech and the ability to eat,” said surgeon Tom Boeve, a veteran of Samaritan’s Purse work in South Sudan who also traveled to Bolivia. “If [a patient] has a fistula, he’s miserable, because every time he eats and drinks something comes up his nose. It makes him a social outcast from that perspective, and it’s miserable for him. So, to fix it and get it to work fairly well, then he can begin to develop better speech and function in society very well.”
A local spiritual care team played a critical role in ministering to patients and parents.
“It’s a huge joy that you have come so far to bless the children of Bolivia,” Bolivian Pastor David Archondo (below, grey sweater) told surgeon Dr. Jim Wade. “Through these surgeries, I have faith these children will have better opportunities for their futures.”
Pastor David was born 57 years ago with a complicated cleft lip and palate (resulting in profound speech issues) and has had 12 surgeries himself. He was saved at age 21 and began preaching just three months later.
“I was a child who couldn’t even pronounce my own name, and God has transformed that child into a preacher,” Pastor David said. “This is the grace of God. Nothing is of me, everything is of God.”
He saw his role as ministering to both patients—many of whom were small children—and their parents, whom he says are going through their own difficult times.
“The work of Samaritan’s Purse is complete, including the physical and spiritual. It’s integrated,” Pastor David. “I’m passionate about this.”
As parents and teenaged patients witnessed physical healing, that experience broke down barriers for spiritual conversations. Pastor David and others were able to get to the point and, in some cases, cut through cultural Christianity.
“The Gospel is clear. We can’t add or take away anything from it,” Pastor said. “A lot of people say they believe, but they have never received anything from God. They’ve never repented and allowed that the blood of Christ would make them clean.”
Edson, 27, (below in green shirt) had a cleft lip revision. He is in his final year of technical school, studying to be an electrician. He grew up being made fun of by other children—“It was hard to be different from everyone else.”
Though classmates are kinder now, his pre-revision cleft lip was still an issue. He felt it might have been holding him back from better opportunities. “It’s still something I struggle with every day,” he said. “It feels like a little bit of an obstacle.”
In addition to Edson’s successful lip operation—performed by human hands—God did surgery on his heart by replacing a heart of stone with a new heart of flesh (see Ezekiel 36:26). As he talked with our ministry team before his surgery, he was convicted of his need to receive Christ.
“I’ve always trusted in God but today they showed me the right way I should go and how to grab hold of the Bible,” he said.
Our staff gave the young man and his mother Modesta—who also received Christ—new Bibles in Spanish and other Christian literature. Edson made a quick post-op recovery, and our staff saw him diligently digging into the Word. He later texted one of our staff the following message (translated from Spanish to English): “Thank you, thank you very much for making possible this gift of a new smile for us. May God always take care of you and bless you all. Thank you to all the doctors and the whole team for this incredible campaign.”
Daniela, 14, (below) loves to sing, recite poetry, and draw, especially portraits. She is a vibrant, intelligent teenager who has suffered, yet maintains a positive attitude nevertheless. Daniela was born with a cleft lip and underwent surgery at 8 months old. But, for the past 13-plus years, she has struggled with a lip in need of further surgery and, worse, a nostril that remained closed.
It’s been hard to exercise, especially in gym class, and her appearance has brought shame and rejection. No one would wish her situation on their adolescent daughter. Carmen, Daniela’s mom, summed it up this way, “It’s been really horrible.”
The family simply did not have the money to fix Daniela’s lip and nose. When Daniela was initially screened by our medical team, they were unsure if she would be treated during this campaign. But, it turned out that there was time to do her septoplasty.
“I really prayed to God that this would happen,” Carmen said after her daughter’s surgery. “I believe God put it on the hearts of the doctors to help her.”
Both of Daniela’s parents were overjoyed that the surgery was performed, thanking both God and the medical team. “It’s not just our daughter who can smile, it’s us as parents,” Carmen said. “You not only change the lives of the children, you change the lives of the parents.”
Daniela is now looking forward to going to school. “The first thing: I can breathe better… I’m excited, because I feel like I was born again, like you’ve given me a new life,” she said. “This is a huge deal.”
The cleft lip campaign also made a spiritual impact on Daniela and her mother. Though believers, they had not been in church recently. Pastor David witnessed to them and encouraged them to get connected to a local congregation. His presence at just the right time had a powerful effect.
“When my daughter entered the surgery, I was incredibly anxious. It was at that time that Pastor David talked and prayed with me. I lost all of that anxiety,” Carmen said.
Through prayer and a surgery, hope has been restored to this family.
“I’m looking at life with new eyes,” Daniela said.
Karen Daniels leads the cleft lip and palate surgical teams for Samaritan’s Purse, and she was thrilled with the results of our first campaign in Bolivia. “It’s been a fantastic week. God has just been really gracious to us.”