( Story by Hannah Reed & Photography by Ellie Falcao)
I ended my day at the hospital looking out over the city of San Salvador from a window on the 5th floor. The sun was setting over the city, the birds were singing, and my mind was whirling. Each time I remembered different moments from today, I couldn’t stop shaking my head in disbelief knowing that I got to witness and be a part of seeing families laugh, cry and hold each other as they saw their child go into surgery and come out with a new smile, nose, or hand. This morning Gabriel was the first one on the schedule for surgery. He is a bright-eyed little one-year-old boy, who is so jolly it’s as if he has a smile permanently etched on his face. Because of his contagious joy he stole the hearts of all the nurses, doctors and volunteers that were around him- which is why the next part of the story is so exciting.
Gabriel was born with a cleft palate and cleft lip. A local doctor had operated on his cleft lip and it hadn’t been repaired very well—it showed more scarring than it should have. When our surgeons Dr. Greives and Dr. Wegge examined him, they decided that fixing his cleft palate was the priority. His parents asked if the doctors could also fix his cleft lip if they had time, but that was unlikely given that there were more kids in line for surgery that day.
I was able to get Dr. Matt Greives perspective on the surgery. He explained that Gabriel’s palate repair took a very long time- the most difficult one so far that week- but he was very happy with the end result. However, once he and Dr. Wegge had removed the retractor that was keeping his mouth open, they had a good view of his lip and realized that even though his mouth had been made whole, his lip still needed revision. They both discussed and decided “we just can’t leave it like that- we are here, he is here, and we need to give him a perfect smile.” Since his lip had already been operated on before, there was a large amount of scar tissue and a few muscles that were not in the right place. Once they were done with his lip, his nose had been flattened because his lip had been changed—so they repaired that as well!
While the doctors were in surgery with Gabriel, one of his nurses came out of the waiting room to give his parents an update. She told them “your baby is doing well- now they are working on his lip.” They were not expecting the doctors to have enough time to fix his lip, so when they heard the news their reaction was priceless! Really, no words or description can truly do it justice (See photo below!). Ellie, Anton and I were luckily enough to witness this scene, and couldn’t help letting Gabriel’s surgeons and really the whole team know what was happening. Learning about the parents’ reaction got the surgeons even more excited to make Gabriel’s face complete. As Dr. Greives put it, “how could I let a little boy leave the operating table, when I knew that it was in my power to give one more hour of my time to make an even more profound impact on his life? I could not.” I had the honor of standing close to the operating table, and got to witness both doctors carefully and skillfully turn what looked like a blob of scar tissue into a beautiful lip.
Once surgery was complete, both doctors came out together to let Gabriel’s parents Tanya and Joey know that the operation was a success; they were met with lots of hugs, smiles, tears, and words of gratitude.
You know what- no book, movie or blog for that matter can fully portray the moment I just described. This is a memory that none of us will ever forget. The joy on the parents’ faces was infectious, and the gratitude that they felt radiated off of them. For me, this surgery brought into focus why we are here; parents wanting the best for their children, doctors willingly giving an extra hour of their time to do the right thing, and all of us coming together to change lives. Gabriel will always know that because people went the extra mile for him, instead of being bullied and humiliated because of his looks, he will have the chance to live life to the fullest and become whatever he sets his mind to be.