Growing Up with Cleft Lip in the Philippines
Every child is special. They have a unique spark within them that makes them see the world as a happy and playful place; to run and play without a care in the world. The innocence and wonder in a child’s eye is a treasure that we should protect and nurture. However, what if a young child is subjected to an environment where they are treated like a freak? As terrible as it sounds, this predicament is far too common for children in the Philippines with certain facial birth defects.
Every 3 minutes, a child is born with a cleft lip and/or palate. This condition not only affects the children physically in terms of speech, eating, and hearing problems, but it also profoundly impacts their social, emotional, and psychological development. It is undeniable and unfortunate that many of these children are regularly bullied by their peers and stared at by strangers. This type of treatment can devastate a child’s self-esteem at an age when they’re most vulnerable. No child should ever be forced to experience such inadequacy and shame.
Every cleft child has a different story, but they almost always manifest the hardships and barriers they endured at a young age. This story is about a girl in the Philippines named Mecca. Although she was born in a caring and affectionate home, she always felt like she was different. During her childhood, people would frequently point out and comment on her appearance.
Mecca has a condition called unilateral complete cleft lip. When she was born, her lip and palate did not form properly, leaving a split on one side of the lip that goes beyond the nose towards the back of the palate. Despite this, Mecca’s family has always loved her from the bottom of their hearts. She was extremely close with her mother, who gave Mecca the courage to face her bullies and drown out their ignorant voices.
Mecca’s family environment has always been loving and understanding. Although their situation is not perfect, they get by because of their unconditional love for each other. Mecca’s father is a butcher who earns about $150/month, which is barely enough to support a family of 6 (she has 3 sisters). They live near a lake and when the water rises during the rainy season or high tide, it often reaches their house. It’s normal for them to wear boots when going outside of their home to buy food or other necessities.
A Secluded Childhood
Despite the inconveniences, Mecca still loves her home. It’s the only place where she can feel safe, away from the judgment and stares of other people. It’s a place where she feels like she belongs. Mecca often stays at home watching movies and reading stories; she and her sisters love action stories. Occasionally, she might even muster the courage to go outside and play badminton or basketball with her sisters.
Although she has tried to live a life where she feels normal, the condition has tremendously affected her youth. Mecca is often petrified to leave her home. Even if she and her sisters are just walking to the store, she is forced to listen to discriminating comments and teasing from her neighbors. Because of this, she has understandably become more isolated and secluded, clinging to the safety and comfort of her home and family.
In 2014, a staff member from Abounding in Love was informed of Mecca’s condition and living situation and offered to visit the family at their home. Her parents were ecstatic when they learned that this nonprofit organization would be willing to pay for Mecca’s cleft surgery expenses. They hoped that the experience would be an opportunity for Mecca to start life anew.
An Unexpected Diagnosis
When Mecca was 8 years old, she and her mother traveled to Cebu City, Philippines for a medical mission offering free cleft lip and palate surgery. Prior to this, she had to undergo a series of checkups and laboratory examinations to determine if she was healthy enough surgery. Sadly, they received bad news. The doctor informed them that Mecca failed the screening due to a heart condition called Patent Ductus Arteriosus (PDA). It occurs when there is an abnormal connection between the aorta and the pulmonary artery. In short, Mecca had an unclosed hole in her aorta. Cleft lip and palate repair would have to wait; a heart operation was now the first priority.
When they left the hospital, Mecca’s mother was in tears. The doctors had told her that the heart surgery would cost a huge amount of money. It was a seemingly impossible financial burden, not to mention another barrier between her daughter and cleft surgery. They were discouraged at first, but the Abounding in Love staff reassured them that they would not give up on them. Mecca’s mother prayed to God that day for help.
One hour after leaving the hospital, they received an unexpected call. It was the hospital informing them that they found a doctor who was willing to perform Mecca’s heart operation for free! Suddenly, a weight was lifted from her mother’s shoulders. God had answered her prayers.
Heart, Cleft Palate, & Cleft Lip Surgery
On October 21, 2014, Mecca had a successful PDA heart surgery courtesy of the Gift of Life Foundation. Words could not express the gratitude that the family had for all the doctors and people who helped Mecca.
As advised by the doctors, Mecca would have to wait a while before having cleft lip surgery. Almost exactly one year later, her cleft lip was repaired with the help of Dr. Senerpida from Perpetual Succour Hospital. And 5 months after that (March 2016), our charity helped her receive free cleft palate surgery as well. Mecca’s mother was profoundly happy for her daughter. She had been there every step of the way, supporting and taking care of Mecca until she was fully recovered.
Life After Surgery
For the next 5 years, all was well for the family. Mecca was on the road to finding herself and learning to be confident in her own skin. However, life is unpredictable and on June 24, 2021, tragedy struck the family. Mecca’s mother passed away due to diabetes and kidney problems, a loss that affected them both emotionally and financially. Her father was devastated and worried about his ability to raise 4 young daughters on his own.
Mecca especially was heartbroken and still misses her mother every day. She had played such an important role in Mecca’s life before, during, and after surgery. And now that she’s gone, she can only reminisce and appreciate the beautiful memories she had with her mother.
Life goes on for Mecca. Despite all the heartaches and challenges she’s had to endure, she continues to be the sweet, kind girl that her family has always known her to be.
Mecca is very grateful to Abounding in Love for their help over the years. They continue to visit her and her family every Christmas, providing them with food, clothes, and financial assistance. They hope that these small acts of kindness will help support the family through the pandemic.
The Present & the Future
The family remains thankful for God’s blessings as they look forward to a wonderful future. Mecca aspires to become a chef one day so she can cook delicious food for her family and others. She will be in 9th grade this year. After 6th grade, she stopped going to school for a while because her family was afraid that children would bully her. In addition, the school is located in a high-level area, which requires an hour walk uphill just to get there. This is not a good thing for Mecca’s heart, however, because of the pandemic, she can now study at home.
The story of Mecca and her family teaches us that when your world is falling, don’t forget to look up. Even in loss and hardship, God has a plan and will guide you. The family never forgets to be grateful and the love they have for each other is worthy of admiration. It’s ironic and delightful to say that, despite Mecca’s shyness, she is still one of the bravest girls one could ever know.