Miles for Smiles - Tebatso's Story

03 May 2013

Written by a Peace Corps Volunteer

Tebatso, a four-year-old boy who lived with a cleft palate since birth, underwent life-changing surgery at the end of last year. He was just one of the many children whose lives were touched by Miles for Smiles, a foundation formed to assist Operation Smile in raising funds for corrective surgery. SPAR proudly donated R30 000 towards the most recent set of operations that took place in the Eastern Cape, proving that smiles are indeed contagious.
first time I saw Tebatso I did a double take, realising immediately that he must have endured countless reactions such as mine. Pieces of his upper lip protruded at odd angles, exposing teeth that seemed to emerge from his nose. His beautiful eyes held my gaze for a few moments, an d then he returned to his play within the protective circle of his older brothers.
As a Peace Corps Volunteer assigned to Tebatso’s remote rural village in South Africa, I was determined to  find help for this child. The village community development worker provided me with background information. Tebatso lived with his mother and grandmother, two older brothers, and three cousins. Shortly after his birth, he was referred for a consultation regarding surgery. His mother did not keep the appointment, mistakenly thinking that her own skin was going to be grafted. Because she did not follow through, many people in the village considered her a negligent parent. When Tebatso turned four, his grandmother enrolled him in a  preschool program, but the other children were so frightened by his appearance that the teachers requested his removal from the school. The prospect of kindergarten was a nightmare, and Tebatso’s mother was ready to seek help.
 Where to turn? Maxillo- and craniofacial surgeons I knew from the United States put me in touch with world renowned surgeons at the University of Pretoria, but despite our collective best efforts, the waiting list for free patients might take as long as two years.  What about Operation Smile, whose before-and-after photographs of children with cleft lips and cleft palates had always fascinated me but to whom I had never donated a penny? Could they possibly have a medical mission in South Africa? It was time to check the website and enquire. 
 Finally, the week of Operation Smile’s medical mission arrived. Tebatso stayed calm and trusting throughout three long rides in crowded taxis.  
At the hospital the next day, he and his mother saw other children with cleft lips for the first time. Operation Smile volunteers were welcoming.
At the hospital the next day, he and his mother saw other children with cleft lips for the first time. Operation Smile volunteers were welcoming, humorous, and thoroughly professional. They managed to make us laugh from time to time during a long day of intake with a team of volunteer pediatricians, anesthesiologists, nurses, speech therapists, and plastic surgeons. Mothers and children from Swaziland, Lesotho, and South Africa waited patiently while additional volunteers offered books, crayons, teddy bears  and play in order to ease the anxiety. Makamela found herself interpreting in isiZulu, Sepedi, Seswati, and English. By the end of the afternoon, both Tebatso and Boitshepo - the ten month-old baby from Limpopo - were accepted for surgery. 
 The real miracles – the life-changing surgery for thirty children – began the next day. Children with cleft palates, like Boitshepo, went downstairs first, as theirs was the more complicated procedure. These children had  struggled all their lives to eat food without it coming out of their nose. Excitement built as they began to come up from the recovery room. Gradually, children with cleft lips were called - children who had always shocked or frightened others because of their distorted smiles. Tebatso waited patiently all day. Like most rural South African children, he was used to waiting a long time for his turn. He sat on his mother’s lap, constantly holding her hand, never questioning why he wasn’t allowed to eat or drink. His was  the last surgery of the day. Tebatso’s smile was transformed in under an hour. Except for some swelling and a temporary scar that stretched all the way through his lip and up into his nose, his new, sweet expression belonged to his face, as though it had always been there. We held him up to a mirror the following day. He didn’t say anything at the time, but when he returned to his village, and his family gathered around him with tears streaming down their cheeks, he said, “Now I look like my brothers.”