Kathy Dolan, who participates in Smile Train’s Frequent Smiler program, wrote to Smile Train to share the story of her adopted son, Christopher, who was born in with a cleft lip and palate in Vietnam in 1974.
My first glimpse of anyone with a cleft came as a volunteer disembarked from an airplane and handed our new son to me. He had been abandoned by a road in Vietnam about eight months before he came home to us. We named him Christopher. I believe that his smiling eyes and friendly personality can be attributed to his bilateral cleft lip and palate. While in the orphanage, he had to be held to be fed, as he couldn't suck milk from a bottle. His lip was repaired about a month after he came to us. It took years of various surgical procedures before the doctors pronounced him ‘fixed.’
Kathy also shared her son Christopher’s emotional hand-written note reflecting on how his cleft lip and palate impacted his life:
Usually when we think of birth defects, such as cleft lip and palate, we think that the world has dealt someone a terrible hand. But today, the reality is that amazing progress in plastic surgery means parents no longer imagine a life of undue burden for children born with clefts. Forty-one years ago, inside the chaos of a wartime Vietnam, reality was quite different. In 1974, I was born with not just a cleft lip but a cleft palate as well. So I guess you could argue that the hand I was dealt truly was terrible.
I've always imagined my young parents as poor Vietnamese refugees displaced from their home by hordes of invaders. How could they possibly cope with a newborn infant who could not breast feed because his misshapen mouth would not suckle? What kinds of anxieties must they have felt as their undernourished son began to wither away in their arms? It is hard enough to care for a child while running from bayonets, bullets and bombs but is it even possible to provide for a baby with such extraordinary needs? Questions like these make it impossible for me to ever condemn my biological parents for the choice they made in surrendering me. Just imagine the tremendous courage required to put that much trust in blind faith. But what else can you do when it seems the only option you have is to live safely apart or die tragically together? Those circumstances forced my parents to ask the most unaskable question of all: Is the world really inherently good enough that my baby will be safe without me?
People who choose the greater good over their instinctual impulses always amaze me. People like my adoptive parents who weathered disheartening judgmental comments as part of the emerging movement of international adoption, pan-ethnic families, and the welcoming of special needs children into homes.
So let's revisit the preconception of the term "birth defects." I've always believed it to be outrageously pejorative. The fact is, being a baby born with a cleft somehow set forth an amazing chain of heroic events — all of which have forever inspired me.
It is this reason that today I volunteer for social justice campaigns and strongly support organizations like Smile Train. Now, as I look into the mirror, I still see scars from yesterday but they are not depressing or traumatic. Instead, they are reminders that everything I have received in life is a result of the inherent goodness in the world.
Christopher Huneke, proud son of Kathy Dolan and John Huneke