Federico Has Mastered the Art of Surprise

Meet the newest soccer star from Argentina

Federico smiling in a soccer jersey

Bárbara’s pregnancy was a surprise, but her baby’s cleft was not. When the ultrasound technician gave her the news, she was grateful to know in advance, but overwhelmingly, she felt anxious. She had heard of clefts before and knew surgery was possible; in fact, that was one of the things that most worried her. How could she ever hand that tiny little figure kicking away on the screen — her only child — over to a team of strangers so they could knock him out and cut into him?

But that ultrasound revealed another, no less important, fact about her son-to-be. Those wild, darting legs told Bárbara that her boy was going to be a fighter and warned her and her husband that they needed to be, too.

Still, at least they had time to prepare — or so they thought. Two days before Christmas and one month before he was due, Federico entered the world. From his first moment, it was clear this child would not be stopped.

“I can recall every detail of that moment,” Bárbara said. “I was in a lot of pain… he was incubated. They wouldn’t allow me to see him until the following day.”

After the longest night of her life, Bárbara discovered that no amount of time could have possibly prepared her for holding her baby for the first time. It was pure bliss.

A few moments later, just as familiar fears began to seep into her joy, the hospital staff surprised her with some visitors. They were from Hospital Notti, home of Mendoza, Argentina’s premier cleft clinic.

Difficult Beginnings

Federico’s struggle for survival began shortly after he arrived home. Milk flowed up his nose instead of into his stomach, choking him at every feeding. But here, too, his parents considered themselves fortunate. They had a leg up: The team at Notti had taught them proper feeding practices, even demonstrating procedures for wiping his mouth, gums, and nose to maximize the amount of milk he swallowed, ensuring he could fight to live another day.

They knew they were lucky in another way, too. Though many children with clefts are rejected by their wider families, Federico’s grandparents were always there for him. And while some cleft-affected families face so much harassment from neighbors and their communities that they have to keep their child shut in, Bárbara refused to send her son a message that there was anywhere he didn’t belong. She proudly took him everywhere, whether a friend’s house, social event, or wedding, without apology.

The only thing that still intimidated her was the prospect of handing her baby over for surgery. Nearly a year later, it felt as impossible as it did when she first saw him kicking away inside her.

Of course, that didn’t stop the family from scrimping and saving every peso to get him the care he needed to eat, breathe, and thrive. When they had at last socked away enough and the day for Federico’s cleft surgery finally arrived, every bone, every nerve, every cell in Bárbara’s body protested with all the mountain-flattening force of maternal instinct not to hand her little baby over. But somewhere even deeper inside her, she knew that this, too, was part of her fight for Federico’s future. She took a breath, closed her eyes, and entrusted him to the cleft team.

Though her son was away from her for the first time, she was never alone. Hospital staff members stayed with her offering support and reassurance. Still, there was only so much they could do.

“I was sitting at the entrance to the operating room. I didn’t move until the surgery was over. I was very afraid. I wanted to be with him, to hold his hand.”

The seconds inched by. She felt herself aging one year for every leaden creak of the clock.

Then she heard a squeak behind the door and knew at once it was her Federico being wheeled out of the operating room. She rose, clenched his hand, and vowed to never let it go again.

The surgery had only taken an hour.

In the days that followed, the team at Notti remained steadfast by the family’s side. The doctor called every night to see how Federico was doing. Bárbara told him he was recovering well and the whole family was thrilled with the result, but she also admitted it was a big change. Her baby’s face was no longer the one she had fallen in love with at first sight.

She told the doctor that when he tried to move his mouth and couldn’t the way he was used to, he would get annoyed and cry. And she cried with him.

Fighting Words

Federico’s cleft may have been healed, but that surgery could not be the end of his cleft journey. He still needed specialized orthodontics to get his crooked teeth in line. And, after nearly emptying their bank account for his surgery, his family had no idea how they would ever afford it.

The need was more than cosmetic. Federico’s classmates verbally abused him from the moment he entered school. In sixth grade, they threw him under a desk and kicked him in the head for the way he looked.

Though school is so traumatic for many children with clefts that they have no choice but to drop out, Federico refused to let the bullies get to him, even when people he considered friends turned on him. Instead, he fought back in a way they never saw coming — he talked to them, made them hear the human behind the smile they scorned.

Federico in an orange hoodie
Federico gearing up to face the day

“I would feel bad, inferior, but now I can defend myself, I speak up,” Federico said. “As I started hanging out with my classmates more often, I talked to them. I [found I] could get rid of fear, of nervousness [that way]. As they knew more about me, they were more sympathetic and supportive. I even made a few friends who understand me. Some would even ask what happened to me and I would tell them.”

Federico with his arm around his mother
Federico and Bárbara share a smile

Asked where he found the confidence to confront his bullies this way, he doesn’t hesitate: “Talking with my mom helped a lot.”

This Is What a Cleft Champion Looks Like

When Federico turned 13, Smile Train entered into partnership with Hospital Notti and the family got another fighter in their corner. Though his parents had already paid for his cleft surgery, Smile Train understands that surgery is only one of many fundamental components of the cleft care journey.

We were proud to step in and fund the braces he so needed.

Federico smiling in his mirror
Federico is proud of the smile he sees in the mirror

The Fight of an Underdog, the Confidence of an All-Star

Federico had to struggle for life and respect from his first straggling breaths. Yet with his family and the team at Notti constantly in his corner, he’s always known that he will be loved and accepted as he is no matter what. Growing up always feeling he has something to prove while never doubting his basic worth has instilled in Federico a rare tenacity.

Federico smiling in the midst of his many trophies
Federico showing off some hardware

Some might call it a fighting spirit. It’s what’s propelled him to win a host of top sports prizes. And to recently sign a contract to play professional soccer at just 18 years old.

No one who knows him is in the least surprised.

“Parents of children with clefts need to support them in every moment, to be there for them in every situation, both in good and bad times,” Bárbara said.

Bárbara kissing Federico on the cheek
Bárbara was and always will be there for her son in every moment

Added Federico, “Thanks, Smile Train, for all your support and your help.”

Children with clefts around the world cannot grow up with health, a confidence boost, and a smile without the treatment you make possible.