[People] Changing the Face of Loneliness by Fr. Shay Cullen

Changing the Face of Loneliness
by Fr. Shay Cullen

It was a happy day last week for 31 children and one adult suffering from cleft palate and cleft lip, when the expert surgical team of volunteer doctors with the Philippine Band of Mercy completed a marathon stretch of facial reconstruction operations at the San Marcelino hospital in Zambales. It had special meaning for me too.

One 15 year old girl Angelica had difficulty speaking because of the facial disfigurement caused by a serious cleft lip. Still she did her best and told the social worker and doctors that her greatest fear in life was not the disfigurement alone but that she would never have a boyfriend and be kissed. Nothing could be more serious for a teenager.

Two front teeth appeared to be protruding from her nose and there was a gaping hole where her mouth and lips should have been. To an outsider the child was hideously ugly. She had stopped school after grade four because of the hurtful comments of a few schoolmates. She and many more like her suffer much because of the disfigurement. In the Philippines one child in every 400 suffers either a cleft palate or a cleft lip, some say its even higher. Worldwide it is one in every 700 births.

But by Wednesday that nightmare was over for Angelica and the other much younger children. Having already passed the pre-screening the previous week Angelica entered the operating theatre and received a local anesthetic. The surgical team set to work and began to re-sculpture her disfigured facial features. In a stunning 45 minutes, all recorded on video, newly reconstructed lips and mouth appeared under the skilled hands of the surgeon.

On the operating table it was an amazing change but in a few more months of healing Angelica and the other patients will be looking like new persons. This will be especially true for the children as young as three to six years old. A surgical operation at an early age can heal with almost no scar.

These unfortunate children who cannot get an operation suffer psychologically as they grow up especially after they are five years old. They can have speech impediment, have poor self-image and tend to isolate themselves. Some lack friends, education and a deprived social life. Many become so shy that they tend to isolate themselves and cannot play and enjoy a happy childhood

“Why am I not like other children”, Angelica asked. The answer is not yet totally clear but according to Wikipedia a cleft palate and lip is… “A congenital deformity caused by abnormal facial development during gestation. It is the non-fusion of the body’s natural structures that form before birth”.

The first time I saw a child with a hole in her face was long ago in 1972. I was a newly arrived Missionary of St. Columban in the Philippines and assigned as assistant parish Priest of San Marcelino. While visiting a rural school I rounded a corner and was face to face with a child of enormous ugliness and frightening appearance. She was about 12 years-old had a massive facial deformity – a cleft palate and lip. Where she ought to have had a mouth and a nose instead there was a hole and a single tooth protruded. The poor child looked hideous and she knew it. Surely she must have had to endure the taunts of the other children or be branded a freak. Many of these children cannot laugh or smile and they have speech difficulties.

I soon found many more children with these facial deformities in San Marcelino and neighboring towns and I began Operation Harelip with the help of Sister Rose from Daughters of Charity along with the Philippine Band of Mercy. Over the years other charities also picked up the work and many hundreds of children with cleft lips and palates and other deformities have been restored to a more normal life. Today the work still goes on. Preda will continue to seek out the children in need of operations, support them and the surgical team. They will soon have laughs and smiles, hugs and kisses and a much happier life. e-mail: shaycullen@preda.org. website: http://www.preda.org

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Contact Fr. Shay Cullen at the Preda Center, Upper Kalaklan, Olongapo City, Philippines. e-mail: preda@info.com.ph, newsletters@preda.org

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(Fr. Shay’s columns are published in The Manila Times,
in publications in Ireland, the UK, Hong Kong, and on-line.)

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