Spreading smiles in Mexico

By Kristin Brown, President of the Rotary Club of Evanston Lighthouse, Illinois, USA

The first thing I noticed were the smiles. Everyone at the clinic was smiling: the doctors, their young patients, and especially the parents. The Centro SUMA Clinic in Mexico City treats children born with cleft lips and palates and the parents smile because they can see the results in the beautiful smiles of the babies, toddlers and teens around them. The children smile naturally, thanks to the treatment they’ve received since birth.

I traveled to Mexico City with members of my club to meet our Rotarian partners and see for ourselves the results of our clubs’ support for cleft lip and palate repair programs at several Smile Train locations. The Rotary Clubs of Vallejo and Tampico have supported cleft repair for 11 and 50 years respectively. Our three clubs have recently partnered with Smile Train to support their physician training program that emphasizes treating the whole patient, not just the cleft. In contrast to the “one and done” approach to surgery, Smile Train trains specialists to work together in teams to assess each patient and determine a plan for treatment with appropriate follow up throughout childhood and adolescence.

Our Smile Train hosts arranged for us to visit three clinics in three days. We met a lot of happy children and their parents and learned a great deal about cleft. At the Hospital Pediátrico de Peravillo we spoke with the geneticist who explained that the primary cause of cleft is genetic. At the Centro SUMA Clinic we observed a team of orthodontists, maxillofacial surgeons, plastic surgeons, and speech therapists as they evaluated patients aged 3 months to 3 years and conferred with each other about each patient’s progress and next steps. Finally, at the Hospital del Niño DIF Hidalgo we watched two experienced surgeons repair clefts, using the new techniques they learned in their Rotary-supported Smile Train training.

Dr. Eduardo Varela Ibanez has been operating on cleft patients for 14 years but this was his second surgery since learning about pre-surgical orthopedics. Baby Carlos was fitted with a simple orthodontic device to mold his palate, shape his nose, and gently pull the two sides of his cleft lip together as he grows. Now four months old, he was ready for surgery and Dr. Varela said it was remarkable how simple it was. The lip was easier to close, the nose was treated with a single stitch, and Carlos’ time in surgery was cut in half.

On the other hand, Miguel, five months old, is not quite ready for surgery.  His mother was disappointed until Dr. Gabriela Wong Romo, another Smile Train trainee, explained that by wearing his device for two more months, his results will be much better. Dr. Wong says that high quality cleft repair is a human right.

We wrapped up our visit as guests at a reception with the families of children with cleft, some of whom had come from three hours away, just to express their gratitude for the treatment they’ve received for the three Rotary clubs supporting the program. Everyone was smiling: the children, the parents, the doctors and the Rotarians. We truly are making a difference for these children and their families.


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