“I didn’t know what to do…” A father struggling with his daughter’s birth difference finds support. “Thank you so much, from the bottom of my heart.”

When Cinthya found out her third child was going to be born with a cleft, she took the news hard, but her husband particularly struggled. Living in a wooden cabin in the mountains above Lima, Peru, fear of the unknown has led to a strained relationship with her newborn baby – it is until smile train changed their life. Check out their powerful journey below, in Cinthya’s own words.

I always make sure to have all my ultrasounds when I’m pregnant. This time the pictures reassured me that the baby was fine even though I was suffering from complications. I often fell ill; I had headaches. They told me there was a chance I could lose her. At eight and a half months, my obstetrician sent me for an additional ultrasound in a maternity hospital in Lima.

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It was then that the nurse discovered the baby’s cleft. The news was like a bucket of cold water pouring over me. How did they even find this now after so many other scans hadn’t revealed anything? I came home and cried. I felt confused and sad and didn’t have the heart to tell my husband. I just didn’t want to worry him.

Two days later, my contractions started. I tried to ignore them because I still couldn’t accept that my baby had a cleft. Then the pain became too much. My husband drives a gas truck and is away from seven in the morning until eight in the evening, but since it was already late in the day, he was there to take me to the hospital. I felt guilty because I still hadn’t told her about the cleft.

cynthia smiling as she stands in a doorway.
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When Maria Kristhell was born one of the doctors was mean and told me not to pretend to be surprised because I already knew she would have a cleft. A nurse saw how unhappy I was and reassured me. She then put me in a private room, taught me how to feed her, and gave me formula to take home. It gave me a lot of strength.

Things got tough again once we got home. My husband was so shocked and scared by the way Maria was born that he couldn’t eat or go near her for days. Fortunately, his family did not share any of our concerns. They fell in love with her exactly as she was and supported us however they could. And we really needed help.

A curse, then a blessing

Feeding her was an ordeal from the moment we left the hospital. The formula she needed was very expensive and I was afraid that I would not be able to spoon feed her without the help of the nurses. They told me I should switch to feeding her carefully with a syringe if I couldn’t get the spoon to work, but I thought I might hurt her that way, so I started feeding her with a bottle sat.

maria kristhell smiling as she stands outside and holds a picture of herself as a baby.
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Imagine being alone all day with a newborn who chokes every time you try to feed him and you can’t get out of the house because everyone is watching you. Imagine how lonely I felt, how different and inadequate!

No matter what I did, the milk was dripping from her nose and choking her. When Maria was 15 days old, she fell ill and I had to take her to the hospital. As I was crying in the waiting room, a woman came to ask me what was wrong. I told her that my daughter was born with a cleft and she was constantly choking. She told me she knew someone, Kathy Sandoval, who worked for a slot organization and gave me her number. But I was so upset at the time that I forgot the name and number, so I had to look it up online when I felt better a few days later.

maria kristhell and her brother holding cats outside.
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That’s how I found Mision Caritas Felices (MCF), the cleft center in Lima where Kathy Sandoval works. I immediately made an appointment.

When our appointment arrived, Dr. Olga Rita Figallo examined Kristell and told me that she could cure all of her problems – and because MCF partners with an organization called Smile Train, all cleft care including she would need would be 100% free. It was a blessing.

The journey of a lifetime begins

Kristell’s treatment began right away. First, Dr. Olga fitted her with custom orthodontics to better prepare her for surgery and gave us a specialized “ducktail” bottle to help her feed. Kristell had been so thin; I can’t tell you the joy I felt watching her gain weight!

maria kristhell smiling as she sits at a table.  she is holding a spoon which is in her plate.
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When Kristell was three months old, they told us she was ready to have cleft surgery at a nearby center.

I was so, so nervous the day of the operation. No parent was available to come with me, and when they took my baby to the operating room, I was in pieces. Fortunately, I met some mothers of my son’s friends there, and they stayed with me during the operation so that I was not alone. It was like a lifetime, but less than an hour later I was so relieved and happy when I saw Kristell’s face after the operation!

His future is bright and in sight

The following month was very peaceful; Kristell did very well. I followed the treatment regimen prescribed by Smile Train and MCF, and the family couldn’t get over our luck in seeing our baby healthy and smiling.

She was due to have her second cleft surgery when she was one and a half years old, but unfortunately she fell ill just before, so she had to be delayed. Again, Smile Train helped us by providing food, accommodation and transportation so that we could stay until she was healthy enough for the operation.

maria kristhell smiling as she looks down and twirls in a dress.
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Once she had her palate surgery, she started speech therapy with Dr. Evelyn Cana and nutritional counseling with Dr. Adriana Zavalaga. These treatments changed his life just as much as the surgeries. She now eats and talks like any other child.

The staff at MCF always go above and beyond – when Dr. Evelyn noticed that Kristhell was nearsighted, she gave us a voucher to book an appointment with an eye doctor, then donated her glasses to Kristhell so she could see in the meantime!

maria kristhell and her brother smile as they hug.  she wears purple glasses.
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Kristell is a very intelligent child. She is also talkative, sharing and very funny. It breaks my heart to think that, without Smile Train and MCF, she might never have been able to go to school or express herself clearly. Now the sky is the limit for her.

A mission to promote local care

Just before the pandemic, she underwent a third surgery, from Dr. Percy Rosell, a doctor she has known since birth, and she recovered beautifully. That’s why I always say no when people ask me why I don’t take my daughter to the cleft surgical missions that sometimes fly to Lima – I’d rather have Dr. Rosell (and Dr. Olga, and Dr. Evelyn, and Dr. Adriana) treat her because they have known her all her life. Who could take care of her better than that?

maria kristhell smiling with her hands in the air as she stands in front of a stone wall.
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Smile Train changed everything for my family and me. Now, every time I see a kid with a cleft, I’m the one who gives Kathy’s number to her mom. I tell him that the lunges are not something extraordinary. Sure, a slit might shock you because people will look badly at you, but those are our children. We brought them into the world, and MCF and Smile Train will help them get through it all.

I am very grateful to Smile Train donors. They make so many kids happy, and the people who work there and at MCF are incredibly nice.

maria kristhell, her mother and two siblings smiling and posing with a smile form their partner outside their house.
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Although my husband had a hard time bonding with Kristell at first, he now has something he wants me to pass on to you:

I didn’t know what to do until you appeared in my daughter’s life. Now she lacks nothing. I am forever grateful and hope that Smile Train will continue to support many more children. I have no words. Thank you very much, from the bottom of my heart.

maria kristhell leaning on her mum and dad as they smile and pose with her brother who is holding a smiling train sign.
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Although Kristhell’s father had a hard time bonding with her at first, with time and help he was able to understand what it means to have a child with a birth difference. We are so happy that Smile Train is dedicated to supporting families like this all over the world so they can be happy and healthy.

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