Saturday, November 28, 2009

Cleft Pallet

It has been about a month since I last wrote a blog entry. So much has happened that I want to share with you. I helped a boy get a life changing surgery, vacationed on Caye Caulker, I danced and drummed in Dangriga and celebrated Thanksgiving with all the volunteers and staff of Peace Corps Belize.

About two weeks ago, I received an email from a fellow volunteer in Toledo district. She described how she met a team of doctors in Punta Gorda at a craft collective where one Volunteer worked. When she struck up a conversation with them, they explained how they had arrived in Belize prepared to complete over 50 Cleft Pallet and Cleft Lip surgeries but somebody on the Belize end of things dropped the ball and did not gather the patients. So this team of top plastic surgeons spent their own money and time to carry down all the supplies needed to perform such surgeries and now had no one to operate on. I can imagine their frustration, but on the Belizean side of things, I am not surprised that this happened. Anyways, this was a last ditch effort to gather patients that could be in PG to have this surgery the following day. I received this email at 8 PM. I almost disregarded it as I had not seen anyone in the village with a cleft lip and it seemed like a long shot chance to get down there, a 5 hour bus ride. But I did casually ask my friend in the internet cafĂ© if she knew of anyone with such a “ big cut right so.” She said, ah ha, she knew of a boy that grew up here with that but now lives in Armenia, a village 15 miles down the road towards Belmopan. I asked if she knew how to contact him. She asked a neighbor and relative of the boy for the phone number at which he is staying in Armenia. With that in hand, we now had the challenge of making a phone call. We walked to the store to get a phone card to use the community phone. We then walked on the other end of town to use the phone. I first called the volunteer that sent the email to receive more info. We then called the number where the boy was living. Cosy, my counterpart’s daughter talked to the person who answered and told them about this team of doctors in PG that could fix his lip for free. The boy agreed that he was interested and said he could be in Mile 25 the next morning by 8 AM. At this point I was not sure if I would have to take the boy down there myself or what.

So then, Cosy lead us to his Mother’s house in our village where he grew up. It was pushing 9 PM by this point and she lives in a thatched with no electricity. We had one little light as we approached and I never even saw her face during the whole interaction. Again, we explained this opportunity and asked the mother if she would be willing to go down to PG with her son who was arriving in the morning for this opportunity. She agreed to go with him but said that she had never been to PG before and was scared. So I told her to meet me at 8 pm at the bus stop and I would carry them both down there on the bus.

I could hardly sleep that night, as I was so excited and worried at the same time about what I was getting myself into. Excited to play a role in this once in a lifetime opportunity for this young boy to lead a better life and worried that we could actually pull this off as we never got a hold of the team of doctors that the Volunteer had met. I worried that I would lead these people all the way down, a 5 hour bus ride, to PG to find out that we were mistaken and they were no longer doing surgeries or something to that extent. I woke up early and again called another volunteer in PG to ask her to track down these doctors and tell them that I am bringing a kid for the surgery. Meanwhile, I would have to get on the bus and head that way without ever knowing if this would actually happen. I figured it was a chance worth taking.

I walked towards the bus stop, realizing that I had no idea who I was looking for. To my knowledge, I had never met mother before the previous night where I never even saw her face. I figured I would know if the boy was there or not. The bus stop was filled with students and people awaiting the arrival of bus. I smiled at one women sitting in the bus stop and wondered if that was Ipifanya, the mother of the boy, but I did not see a boy with her. Then I noticed a boy with long hair, looking to the ground in the corner of the shed. He looked up quickly to see me and then I realized that he was the boy I was looking for-Peter. I greeted him and asked when he arrived this morning. He told me that he had awoken at 4 am to ride his single speed, beach cruiser bike 15 miles from Armenia to mile 25, reaching here at 6 am. Say what?! I can only imagine what had been going through his head as he made that ride. We boarded the bus to PG, a 5 hour trip. I paid the 15$ for each of them to ride the bus down there has they already told me they could not afford the bus passage.

I was immediately relieved upon reaching Dangriga and cell phone service because my friend Erika texted me from PG saying everything was a go and that the Doctors were ready for him. The trip was quick as we all sat in silence. Still not knowing what could go wrong between now and PG, or if this would really happen. Erika greeted us at the bus stop in PG and walked us to the Clinic. I could tell that Peter was nervous and overwhelmed, and I was equally tense. The doctors met us and were immediately friendly and excited. They were happy to see a patient. They asked Peter a ton of questions very fast and in English about his health and medical history. Mind you, this kid had probably never set foot inside of a clinic his entire life and does not speak much English. But he answered all of the questions well and the doctors were pleased and deemed him ready for Surgery. I felt an intense sigh of relief and rush of excitement that this was actually going to happen for him! He was so nervous and shy though. At one point while preparing for surgery, he disappeared to sit in the stairwell and I thought he ran for it. But he was just quiet and always looked down because he was embarrassed of his deformation. One by one, different doctors and nurses greeted Peter and us as they gathered for surgery. I was so overwhelmed that I can’t even imagine how Peter felt. Then before we could even say goodbye, they whisked him away into surgery.

I am convinced that he couldn’t even wrap his brain around what was going to happen to him despite explaining that they would put him to sleep and such. He must have been really scared. The surgery went great and he was done in 2 hours. By this time, 3 other PG volunteers had joined us at the hospital as they heard I brought Peter down from Mile 25 for the surgery. We were all there when he awoke from surgery. His lip looked really good but was very swollen and bloody. He finally recognized me and gave me a wave. I couldn’t believe I just met this kid mere hours prior as I felt so connected and responsible for him during the moments leading up to surgery and after he came out of it. It was like he was someone I had known for years, yet I didn’t know a single thing about him. Come to find out, he had left home at age 14 because his family mistreated him. He moved to Armenia to live with an aunt and had not been back since. He was now 19. This means that his mother agreed to accompany him down to PG without having seen her son much for the past 5 years. Growing up with such a prominent deformation on your face must have dictated how others treated him and how he walked through this world himself. After returning from PG the next day, he stayed in mile 25 for 4 days recovering. I said goodbye to him, wondering if I would ever see him again, but fully prepared to track him down in Armenia months to come. By this time, his lip looked amazing and he was warming up to me and talking a bit more. But we still didn’t have much to say to one another. Then, to my pleasant surprise, word spread that Peter had moved back to Mile 25 and brought his girlfriend with him! He had left only 5 days prior. I was thrilled to know he was moving back and living with his mother and family after learning that he had been gone for so long. And I was even more excited to find out that he had a girlfriend that he brought back with him! I can only hope that he now has a fresh start on life and this will hopefully change how people treat Peter, including his very own family.

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