Joseline first saw a cleft when she looked down at her son Maxime for the very first time. In an instant, the joy she had anticipated for nine months turned to confusion and anxiety. Her husband, Paul*, rushed to the hospital as soon as he could to meet his new son, but when he saw the cleft lip, he returned him to his crib and left without another word.
Though Joseline didn’t know it yet, this painful moment also contained the first seeds of healing. As she tried to recover, her parents asked the nurses if there was anything they could do about Maxime’s cleft. They told them that, in their region of Cameroon, Mbingo Baptist Hospital could provide a cleft lip surgery when he was six months old.
Joseline returned home from the hospital with Maxime to find Paul still depressed. For six months he kept his son a secret and refused to interact with him or speak to his wife.
When Maxime was finally big enough to go to the hospital, Joseline still felt hopeless. “I thought I would never smile with my baby,” she said. But when Maxime came out of the operating room with his cleft lip healed by Smile Train partner Dr. Acha Tikum, the fog that had hung over the family since Maxime’s birth lifted at last.
“I’ll always treasure the moment I smiled with my baby for the first time,” Joseline shared. “I called Paul, and he drove overnight to come as soon as he could. When he held Maxime this time, the pain on his face disappeared.”
Joseline believed the experience taught her husband an important lesson: When a difficult situation arises, he needs to step up to be there for her and their family. But it would be a few more years before she would know for sure whether the lesson really sunk in.
She learned her third child would also have a cleft while still pregnant with her. The hurtful things neighbors had said after Maxime was born and the memory of Paul leaving the hospital without a word swirled through her mind with each step of her five-hour walk home. When she returned, Paul was there, waiting for her. Eager to get it out of the way, she took a deep breath and told him the news. He shrugged it off and embraced her.
When this child, Divine, was born, Paul was there for her and Joseline, giving both his constant love and support. Dr. Tikum performed her lifesaving Smile Train-sponsored cleft surgery a few months later, and the family is all smiles once again.
*We have changed his name for this story.
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