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A Smile At the Roof Of the World

3-year-old Zhaxi's long wait is finally over

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Tibet, China — Soaring more than 4,500 meters above sea level in the highest region on earth, an incredibly brave little boy and his family received a modern-day miracle.

Amidst a backdrop of the most exquisite landscape on earth, little Zhaxi has lived three long years with a severe cleft lip

The views from “the roof of the world” in Jizhong County, Tibet are breathtaking — luscious meadows of vibrant greens delicately dotted with peacefully grazing sheep; a warm wash of gilded sunshine illuminating the ground and accenting the starkly vibrant blue skies peeking out above the world’s highest mountains. In such a pristinely beautiful part of the world it is difficult to imagine the sadness that was cloaked in the shadows of these mountains; quietly lingering in a remote village called Xingong.

3-year-old Zhaxi and his family live in a small hut in the center of Xingong. Thin blue tarps serve as walls and provide little protection from the wind and rain. The cold dirt floor is cluttered with all of the family’s possessions – stacks of tattered rags, piles of broken and rusted pots and a small heap of chipped bricks that act as a stove to heat water for cooking and bathing. According to the UN Development Program, Tibet is ranked last among China’s 31 provinces on the Human Development Index. As such, it is not surprising that despite how hard Zhaxi’s father works, he earns less than $1 a day raising livestock. And that is why, amidst a backdrop of the most exquisite landscape on earth, little Zhaxi has lived three long years with a severe cleft lip.

Every year more than 32,000 children are born with clefts in China. Poor children of herders, like Zhaxi, have no hope for their clefts to ever be repaired. Despondent and resigned for their son to live forever as an outcast in their small tight-knit community, Zhaxi’s parents dreamed of one day getting him the help he desperately needed.

Smile Train patient Zhaxi hiding before free cleft surgery

Luckily for Zhaxi, his parents dream would soon become a reality.

A team of doctors from one of Smile Train’s best partner hospitals in China, Hunan Children’s Hospital, made the 2,100+ mile journey to Xingong after hearing from another patient’s family that there was a child who needed surgery. As outsiders to their isolated home are few and far-between, when the Smile Train team arrived Zhaxi was extremely frightened. He buried his face in the arms of his mother, squirming and struggling to cover his lip.

As Zhaxi’s mother softly explained that the doctors had arrived to help him, he gradually was able to relax as a faint broken smile spread across his lips. Zhaxi’s family was overjoyed and they arranged for the surgery to be scheduled three months later at the hospital.

As the surgery date quickly approached, Zhaxi and his family made the long trek to the hospital for the surgery that would change his life forever.

Smile Train patient Zhaxi after free cleft lip surgery

Her voice shaky and trembling after seeing her son emerge from the operating room, Zhaxi’s mother cried, “Thank you for helping my son. Thank you for giving him new life. Thank you for making our dreams come true. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.”

Zhaxi was able to return to his village eight days later with not only a beaming and infectious new smile, but with a second chance at life. No longer an outcast, the Smile Train doctors were able to repair his lip and change his fate.