Children born with the genetic condition that causes a cleft lip or palate have a number of difficulties to contend with. This anatomical deformity, among the most common birth defects, affects around one in 700-800 babies in North America. If not repaired soon after birth, a cleft lip or palate may cause kids to have problems with basic activities, including eating and speaking normally. The irregular appearance can also cause serious social and psychological issues.
In the developed world, initial surgery to correct a cleft lip or palate often occurs when an infant is 6 to 12 weeks old; follow-up treatments may happen months or years later. In less developed countries, a large percentage of children don’t get treatment at all. Yet many of us have seen the heartwarming before-and-after pictures of kids around the world who have been successfully treated, thanks to charitable organizations like Smile Train, Operation Smile, and the Cleft Palate Foundation — and to their many supporters, both well-known and anonymous.
For example, supermodel and mom Christie Brinkley, a Smile Train supporter, noted that she was discovered for her smile — and now wants to help kids around the world who would otherwise not be able to smile normally. Another Smile Train booster, comedian and TV personality Howie Mandel, said “I have spent my life trying to elicit smiles. There’s nothing more precious than the smile on a child’s face.” And Stephen Colbert, satirist and late-night talk show host, quipped: “Smile Train is even better than the Love Train, the Peace Train, and the Crazy Train.”
High-profile supporters and contributors to Operation Smile include artist and performer Stefani Germanotta (better known as Lady Gaga) and her fiancé, actor Taylor Kinney; Bay Area musician Michael Franti; and radio and television host William “Billy” Bush.
Treating a cleft lip or palate is best accomplished as a team effort among medical professionals. Because this condition involves anatomical structures in or near the mouth, dentistry plays a large role. A general dentist often follows the young patient through all stages of treatment, initially helping to maintain good oral hygiene and prevent tooth decay. Later, the general dentist will make sure that the child’s bite is well adjusted, and that necessary prosthetics, such as dental crowns or bridgework, function as they should. The initial cleft surgery is often performed by a highly trained dental specialist called an oral and maxillofacial surgeon. Additional surgeries may be performed later, to continue the repair and build on the earlier work.
It takes a dedicated group of people – medical professionals, family caregivers and financial supporters – to help a child overcome a cleft lip or palate. But with proper care and support, it can be accomplished successfully. The impact of charitable groups like these can be measured in the smiles of countless kids they have helped; yet each individual smile gives its own reward.