STOP Clefts Burundi
Developing a new Smile Train partner
Bujumbura, Burundi — In Burundi there are 0.03 doctors per 1,000 people. Accordingly, Smile Train's programs in the country require a unique approach.
Sister Dr. Najjuka and Dr. Ssentongo were there to train a prospective local surgeon
As part of Smile Train's STOP Clefts program, partner surgeons from Uganda visited Burundi to provide free cleft surgeries and medical training.
Dozens of anxious families crowded into a small waiting room at the Hopital de Mpanda in Burundi. Some brought in their children for cleft surgery; others needed surgery themselves. The children went first, one after another into the operating room, followed by the adults.
Each completed cleft surgery ended with a jubilant reunion. One mother danced and sang with joy and relief when her infant son emerged safely with his new smile. Cleft patients still waiting their turn frequently rushed to the door of the adjacent room to watch families reunite, said Kimberly Cannaliato, Smile Train Direct Marketing Manager for the UK who recently visited Mpanda.
“It was bittersweet to see the joy of patients healed by surgery, knowing there are hundreds and thousands of others around the world still suffering with clefts,” said Cannaliato.
In a nearby operating room, Sister Dr. Najjuka Liliana Lucy Gerardine and Dr. Robert Ssentongo performed side-by-side surgeries, each working on a different patient. The two Ugandan surgeons frequently perform Smile Train surgeries in Burundi, one of the world’s poorest nations with one of the fastest growing populations in sub-Saharan Africa. Here, people travel dirt roads on foot or bicycle, sell vegetables piled high on cloths along the roadside, and live in tiny huts of mud, scrap metal and mismatched boards. "It’s difficult for an outsider to watch people living in such poverty," said Cannaliato.
Smile Train began serving the Burundi population of 8.3 million in 2010. According to population estimates, approximately 200 Burundi children are born with a cleft each year. "Since we have established our program in Burundi, we have provided free surgeries for more than 400 people who might otherwise have been disfigured for a lifetime," said Mackinnon Webster, Smile Train Vice President of Strategic Partnerships and Program Development. This past fiscal year, Smile Train provided 299 free cleft surgeries in Burundi .
Surgeons at work
Smile Train's program relies heavily on the dedication of African surgeons, who donate their time and skills to help needy patients.
Through the Smile Train STOP Clefts program and "with the goal of enabling a Burundi medical team to perform cleft surgeries with Smile Train support, Sister Dr. Najjuka and Dr. Ssentongo were there to train a prospective local surgeon," said Webster. Based at Surgical Centre Smile Train Mbarara in Uganda, Sister Dr. Najjuka alone has performed more than 1,000 Smile Train-supported cleft surgeries throughout Africa.
"While many patients were infants and toddlers, like 12-month-old Liesse Ngabire, the faces of the adults awaiting surgery that day were particularly haunting," said Kimberly. Looking into their eyes, she could almost see the suffering that they had experienced because of their clefts. Fortunately, the majority of the cleft patients are young enough where they will never have to face that same pain.
Getting to the hospital can be the hardest part
“One of the hardest pieces is transportation, getting people to the hospital,” said Webster. Smile Train helps these families by providing transportation and sometimes financial assistance, so that they are able to miss work to make the long trip again.
Local driver Jean Bosco Hagabimana assisted with getting cleft patients to and from the hospital. Outreach workers and drivers like Bosco also provide vital help in identifying new patients, driving out into tiny, remote villages and bringing back people in need of cleft repair surgery.
Bosco’s passengers included two young brothers, ages six and seven, whose parents l had no choice but to send the boys alone so they could remain home to earn their daily wages. The boys were a little fearful but respectful, fastidiously piling shells of boiled eggs they had eaten on floor mats to avoid making a mess. “These brothers were so polite and happy that Smile Train was taking the time to help change their lives,” said Cannaliato.
"In order to find and help as many people as possible, former patients and family members often join recruitment efforts and work as program ambassadors," said Webster. Smile Train is testing a pilot incentive program that offers useful items, such as bicycles or sewing machines, in exchange for referring new cleft patients to the program.
What do you think of this story? Post your comments below.
See what others say about this story: