Cleft Surgery Changed Everything for Sheema, Except One Thing

She still cries when she looks in the mirror. But now she does it with lipstick on

“I lost my senses.”

Jann chokes over that phrase as she describes the moment she first saw her baby, Sheema. It was about 12 hours after she had given birth to her.

Sheema’s cleft was a surprise to everyone. Jann’s doctors and family kept the child she had prayed for her whole life from her for as long as they could, worried what would happen when she saw that she had a split in her mouth; but of course, they couldn’t keep the secret forever. Sheema needed to eat just as badly as Jann — alone, crying, and terrified in the recovery room — needed to feed her. To hold her. Even just to see her.

The moment she finally did was indeed a shock to her senses and expectations... that quickly faded. It was no match for her motherly love.

Jann eagerly put Sheema to her breast and received a fresh shock when the milk went into her baby’s nose, gagging her, instead of down her throat.

It’s a common issue. Babies with clefts often struggle to feed and can become severely malnourished without special support. It is not safe to operate on a malnourished baby, but even if surgery does become possible, the effects of malnutrition can last for a lifetime.

Jann tried everything she could to feed her baby while her relatives saved every penny for surgery. When Sheema turned 10 months old, they had managed to put enough aside to pay for Sheema’s cleft surgery.

But the operation was not successful. Sheema did not recover physically, and having to grow up and go to school with an improperly treated cleft left scars of its own.

“Because of my lips, I felt devastated for myself,” she said. The teasing got so bad that she couldn’t bear even to look in the mirror without crying. “When I saw other girls, I used to get sad. I used to think, ‘How beautiful they all are, and I am so imperfect.’ I used to cry and complain to Allah about my lips and how I have not seen children like me in my area.”

When Sheema was 14, her prayers were answered at last, when her family discovered their local Smile Train partner, Arif Memorial Teaching Hospital. After spending her whole life thinking she was the only person with a cleft, seeing other children who looked like her at the hospital started her healing process before she even changed into her surgical gown.

Sheema’s last cleft surgery was etched permanently into Jann’s memory. She didn’t dare think about anything other than the hugs and kisses she would give her baby when they brought her out, regardless of how it went.

When she saw her again a few hours later, Jann gasped. “I was very happy because it went very well. It was great.”

Now, Sheema loves putting on lipstick and wears it with confidence. She applies it even before she goes out to play cricket in the dusty lot with her many friends.

But even as she stands at her mirror to put it on, her eyes well up. She still hardly recognizes herself without tears in her eyes.

“I am very happy now when I see myself in the mirror,” she said. “Tears flow from my eyes from happiness, and I feel very grateful.”

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