It’s hard to fathom looking at them today, but Nub Kalyan admits she was sad when her son, Phal Sopheaktra, was born in Sihanoukville just over three months ago.
The infant had a badly cleft lip and she and her husband did not see much of a future for him. “We worried he would be ashamed of it when he grew up,” she said Tuesday.
Operation Smile, an NGO which repairs the defect, which is estimated to occur in one in every 500 births in Cambodia, offered Nub Kalyan hope when she saw their visit advertised on television a few weeks ago.
That hope was fulfilled this week at the Khmer-Soviet Friendship Hospital when a surgeon repaired little Phal Sopheaktra’s mouth.
“We are so happy,” Nub Kalyan said just a few hours after surgery. “We thank and admire those who did this.
A team of international and local surgeons and volunteers from Operation Smile are performing around 150 surgeries at the hospital this week free of charge for families who could not afford it otherwise.
A relatively uncomplicated defect if treated in the first few months of life, cleft lips and palates can develop to be physically and mentally debilitating. It is estimated that there are over 20,000 children and young adults with clefts in Cambodia.
An increased incidence of the problem here—compared to one in 800 in the developed world—may be due to genetic, nutritional and environmental factors, said Phalyka Oum, a health professional volunteering with Operation Smile.
The project prioritizes the children who are at the best age for treatment and those with the most serious problems.
“The important thing is that it helps them function better. Hearing, eating, breathing problems are fixed here that can be life threatening,” Phalyka Oum said. “The self-confidence and general life-prospects for these children after their surgery can also be a lot higher.”
Fourteen-year-old Ang Srey Touch, who was waiting for surgery Tuesday, can vouch for this.
“My daughter will reject an invitation to visit even from her grandparents because of her mouth,” her mother Yan Sokha said.
“I am happy to get this chance but I am also afraid,” said Ang Srey Touch. “I hope my face will be better.”
Ken Wilson, who is leading the team of five international surgeons volunteering here, said that the complexity of the procedures performed can vary.
It’s his fifth time in Cambodia in the last five years and he reports seeing some progress made here in terms of medical skills and standards.
Five locally trained surgeons had their own operating table this time and were on a mission of their own in Siem Reap province recently.
“The standards are rising here but they still need a lot of help,” Wilson said. “It will still take at least 25 years for [medical standards] to get to a normal level.”
But for now, surgeon says it is satisfying work.
“You are looking after kids who would not otherwise get a chance,” Wilson said. “All surgeries here are successful in the terms that everyone leaves here in better condition than they came in.”