Nine -year-old Cheang Chamrong, patient #253, has made his way to the most important
station in the medical evaluation line: the plastic surgeons.
Australian doctor David Chong and Canadian doctor David Jewer determine that Cheang
has a cleft lip only - his palate is intact - and will receive Priority 1 status,
given his youth and otherwise good health. He's lucky because that status all but
guarantees he will receive surgery. Others are rejected because they lack the health
to undergo surgery or have a deformity too severe.
About one in 500 children are born with a cleft in the developing world and over
20,000 children and adults in Cambodia have clefts.
In honor of its 25th anniversary, Operation Smile organized a medical mission in
25 countries November 8-16 with free treatment for 5,000 children born with cleft
lips and palates whose families can't afford surgery.
In Cambodia, the charity mission at the Khmer-Soviet Friendship Hospital planned
to operate on about 150 children, aided by the efforts of 75 medical volunteers.
During two days of screening, doctors profiled 269 candidates who came from around
Cambodia. Most had never seen a doctor before, said Fleur Childs, Director of Operation
Smile Cambodia. The doctors assessed the patients' condition and assigned a priority.
"He is very embarrassed. He does not want to go to school because they laugh
at him," Bin Sophon said of his son Cheang. "If they sew him up nice, he'll
go to school without being embarrassed and be able to get good grades."
"It's difficult because they talk about me. If they could sew up my mouth, it
would be easy, I would not be embarrassed," said Cheang.
Clefts can make eating and drinking difficult, lead to ear and dental problems, as
well as inhibit a child's speech development.
Speech pathologist Alice Smith said sometimes children with cleft lips and palates
are not allowed to go to school because the other children have problems understanding
them. Buddhist precepts do not make life easier for people in Cambodia with such
defects. Even Sophon said, "I believe that people who have sinned in past lives
are born with deformities and other problems."
Parents at the hospital emphasized, more than anything, wanting their children to
attend school and participate in class.
Three mothers waited in a room on the third floor of the hospital serving as their
living quarters for the duration of their stay. For all three, it was the first time
they've stepped foot in a surgical facility.
"I wanted to find a place that would help him but I didn't know where to go.
I went to the local doctor but they didn't know what to do," said Chim Chaerat.
Another mother, who made the 400km trip from Mondolkiri with her three-year-old daughter,
said "We're all scared our children will not get the surgery. I've come from
far away and saved lots of money to make the trip."
The surgery list was posted and Cheang was scheduled for surgery November 12. His
surgery was successful.
Sophon explained that the family heard about the free surgeries at the beginning
of the year and that he wanted to bring his son in March, when Operation Smile last
came to Cambodia, but work prevented him from making the trip.
In the future, Operation Smile hopes to build a clinic where it can treat patients
year round in Cambodia.