Meghna Barua, Badhon’s mother (26) and her husband Tomal Barua (30) live in a village called Panti Shila, in the district of Chittagong. When asked about their ages, they weren’t sure and had to go and fetch their ID cards to check. Tomal works as a tailor in a little shop nearby and Meghna is a housewife. Badhon was born with a cleft lip and a cleft palate, both of which were operated on in August 2010 and January 2016, respectively.
Like many other mothers, Meghna didn’t have information about this deformity before Badhon’s birth. “I learned about the existence of cleft lips only after my son was born. He was born here in our home and when I saw the cleft it was very painful for me. I was upset because I had never seen a baby with this deformity before.
Taking care of a child with a cleft is hard. It was really difficult to breastfeed so that was why I gave him cow’s milk. He would keep getting colds but we felt too afraid to take him out because the neighbors would say bad things to us. We would stay home most of the time. Badhon was very small and thin for his age because it was so difficult to feed him. He would also lose weight very easily each time he was sick.”
Because of malnourishment in the first months of his life, Badhon, who is now two years old, looks more like a one year old child. At the age of six months, Badhon weighed only 3.5 kg; the weight of a healthy newborn.
Normally in Bangladesh, children with a cleft are operated on at the age of three months but Badhon was one and a half years old because the family had yet to hear about Smile Train. The local hospital gave them incorrect information which was why Tomal and Meghna initially thought they would have to pay for surgery themselves. With the birth of Bahdon, a period of isolation began for the whole family. They hardly left the house and became very withdrawn because their relatives and people in the neighborhood reacted very negatively towards the cleft, blaming Badhon’s mother for the deformity. Badhon’s parents were also told by local people that the cleft could not be treated. Their belief, that the cleft was the will of God, made them initially think that there was no solution to the problem. Later on, they discovered that there was a treatment but believed that they would never be able to afford it.
When Meghna was asked if she knew that Badhon’s cleft wasn’t her fault, the social workers who accompanied me felt the need to explain. It was perfect timing for the family to be rid of the false beliefs which are very common throughout the country, both in the city and even more so in rural areas. In Bangladesh, many people believe that a cleft lip or palate occurs when a pregnant mother uses a knife for cutting, during a solar or lunar eclipse, or as a result of a sinful life. Very often, false information from ignorant people is a major hindrance to a family receiving free cleft surgery.
When asked about Badhon’s health as a baby, Meghna remembers: “Because Badhon was a very sickly baby, he would very often get a cold and once he even developed pneumonia. When we went to the hospital for Badhon to be treated, the doctor there referred us to Smile Train and LMRF Children’s Hospital in Chittagong.
Meghna now recalls with happiness the moments after Badhon’s surgery at the LMRF Hospital: “When I saw my baby after surgery, I was so happy I cried with joy. Immediately after surgery, I was frightened because Badhon was unconscious and I didn’t know about anesthetic. I asked the nurse why my baby was not moving or crying and she reassured me that there was no problem and that Badhon would wake up once the anesthetic wore off. Also, I was scared by the bleeding from his lip but the nurse told me that it would be better in a few days.”
After surgery, Badhon’s parents were very cautious and hid the baby at home until the chance of infection had passed. They also wanted to keep him away from neighbors’ gossip and wait until they could surprise them with the results of Badhon’s surgery.
Meghna now has a different view about the life of her family: “Our lives have changed because our son now looks normal. He can play with other children and nobody can say bad things to us anymore. I know that he will be accepted at school and have a normal life like other children of his age. This is a great relief to us. My hope for my son is that he will gain weight, go to school and receive a proper education so that when he’s old enough he can decide himself what is best for his future.”
Tomal was also very happy when he saw his boy with a new smile. “We have a custom in our culture. When a new baby is born, everyone comes to see the baby. Because our baby was born with a cleft, nobody came to our home. I was very upset about this. When I saw my boy with a normal face after surgery, I was so happy because I realized that no one would be able to say bad things. People know me as a tailor but because of his cleft, my son would have had lower status than me. They used to say that this was a curse, probably due to sins I had committed. So, to see my son normal was a great relief for me. Now we can continue our lives with hope. The operation would normally cost around 50,000 Tk (650USD) which would have been impossible for us to afford. We are very grateful to the people who donated money and helped our child to be like other children.”