“I Didn’t Know What To Do…” Dad Who Struggled With Daughter’s Birth Difference Finds Support. “Thank You Infinitely, From The Bottom Of My Heart.”

maria kristhell smiling with her brother and dad as she sits at a table with a chocolate cake.

When Cinthya found out her third child would be born with a cleft, she took the news hard, but her husband especially struggled. Living in a wooden shack in the mountains above Lima, Peru, fear of the unknown led to a strained relationship with his newborn — that is until Smile Train changed their lives. Check out their powerful journey below, in Cinthya’s own words.

I am always careful to go for all my ultrasounds when I am pregnant. This time, the images reassured me that the baby was fine even as I suffered from complications. I got sick a lot; I had headaches. They told me there was a chance I could lose her. At eight-and-a-half months, my obstetrician sent me for an additional ultrasound at a maternity unit in Lima.

a shack on a hill in lima, peru.
Smile Train

That’s when the nurse discovered the baby’s cleft. The news was like a bucket of cold water pouring over me. How were they only finding this now after so many other ultrasounds revealed nothing? I went home and cried. I felt confused and sad and didn’t have the heart to tell my husband. I just didn’t want to worry him.

Two days later, my contractions started. I tried to ignore them because I still couldn’t accept that my baby would have a cleft. Then the pain became too much. My husband drives a gas truck and is away from seven every morning until eight every night, but since it was already late in the day, he was there to take me to the hospital. I felt guilty because I still hadn’t told him about the cleft.

cynthia smiling as she stands in a doorway.
Smile Train

When Maria Kristhell was born, one of the doctors was unkind and told me not to pretend to be surprised because I already knew she would have a cleft. A nurse saw how unhappy I was and reassured me. She then put me in a private room, taught me how to feed her, and gave me some formula to take home. That gave me a lot of strength.

Things got hard again once we came home. My husband was so shocked and scared by how Maria was born that he couldn’t eat or go near her for days. Thankfully, his family didn’t share any of our worries. They fell in love with her exactly as she was and supported us however they could. And we really needed the help. 

A Curse, Then A Blessing

Feeding her was a hardship from the moment we left the hospital. The formula she needed was very expensive, and I worried I wouldn’t be able to spoon-feed her without the nurses’ help. They told me I should move to carefully feeding her with a syringe if I couldn’t make the spoon work, but I thought I could hurt her that way, so I started feeding her with a bottle sitting up.

maria kristhell smiling as she stands outside and holds a photo of her as a baby.
Smile Train

Imagine being alone all day with a newborn who chokes every time you try to feed her and who you can’t take out of the house because everyone stares at you. Imagine how lonely I felt, how different and inadequate! 

No matter what I did, the milk dripped out her nose and choked her. When Maria was 15 days old, she got sick and I had to take her to the hospital. As I cried in the waiting room, a woman came up to ask what was wrong. I told her my daughter was born with a cleft and constantly choked. She told me she knew someone, Kathy Sandoval, who worked for a cleft organization and gave me her number. But I was so upset at the time that I forgot the name and number, so had to look her up online when I felt better a few days later.

maria kristhell and her brother holding cats outside.
Smile Train

That’s how I found Mision Caritas Felices (MCF), the cleft center in Lima where Kathy Sandoval works. I immediately made an appointment. 

When our appointment arrived, Dr. Olga Rita Figallo examined Kristhell and told me she could heal all her problems — and because MCF partners with an organization called Smile Train, all of the cleft care she would ever need would be 100% free. That was a blessing.

The Journey of a Lifetime Begins

Kristhell’s treatment started right away. First, Dr. Olga fitted her with customized orthodontics to better prepare her for surgery and gave us a specialized “ducktail” bottle to make it easier to feed her. Kristhell had been so skinny; I can’t tell you the joy I felt seeing her gain weight!

maria kristhell smiling as she sits at a table. she's holding a spoon that's on her plate.
Smile Train

When Kristhell was three months old, they told us she was ready to receive cleft surgery at a nearby center.

I was so, so nervous the day of the surgery. No relatives were available to come with me, and when they took my baby to the operating room, I was in pieces. Fortunately, I happened to meet some of my son’s friends’ mothers there, and they stayed with me during the operation so I wouldn’t be all alone. It felt like a lifetime, but less than an hour later, I was so relieved and happy when I saw Kristhell’s face after the surgery! 

Her Future is Bright and In Sight

The next month was very peaceful; Kristhell did very well. I followed the treatment regimen Smile Train and MCF prescribed, and the family couldn’t get over our good fortune to see our baby healthy and smiling. 

She was scheduled for her second cleft surgery when she was one-and-a-half, but, unfortunately, got sick just before so it had to be delayed. Here again, Smile Train helped us by providing food, lodging, and transportation so we could stay until she was healthy enough for the surgery.

maria kristhell smiling as she looks down and twirls in a dress.
Smile Train

Once she had her palate surgery, she started speech therapy with Dr. Evelyn Cana and nutritional counseling with Dr. Adriana Zavalaga. These treatments have been life-changing for her no less than the surgeries. She now eats and speaks just like any other child. 

The MCF staff always goes above and beyond — when Dr. Evelyn noticed Kristhell was near-sighted, she gave us a voucher to make an appointment with an eye doctor then donated her glasses to Kristhell so she could see in the meantime!

maria kristhell and her brother smiling as they hug. she is wearing purple glasses.
Smile Train

Kristhell is a very intelligent child. She is also talkative, a good sharer, and very funny. It breaks my heart to think that, without Smile Train and MCF, she might never have been able to go to school or express herself clearly. Now, the sky is the limit for her. 

A Mission to Promote Local Care

Just before the pandemic, she had a third surgery, from Dr. Percy Rosell, a doctor she has known since she was born, and it healed beautifully. This is why I always say no when people ask why I don’t take my daughter to the cleft surgical missions that sometimes fly into Lima — I prefer to have Dr. Rosell (and Dr. Olga, and Dr. Evelyn, and Dr. Adriana) treat her because they have known her for her entire life. Who could care for her better than that?

maria kristhell smiling with her hands in the air as she stands in front of a stone wall.
Smile Train

Smile Train has changed everything for my family and me. Now, every time I see a child with a cleft, I am the one who gives their mother Kathy’s number. I tell her that clefts are not something of out this world. Sure, a cleft may shock you because people will look at you wrong, but these are our children. We have brought them into this world, and MCF and Smile Train will help them overcome everything. 

I am so grateful to Smile Train’s donors. They are making so many children happy, and the people who work there and at MCF are incredibly kind.

maria kristhell, her mom, and two siblings smiling and posing with a smile train partner outside of their home.
Smile Train

Though my husband had a hard time bonding with Kristhell at first, he now has something he wants me to pass along to you:

I didn’t know what to do until you showed up in my daughter’s life. Now, she lacks nothing. I am always grateful and hope Smile Train will continue to support many more children. I have no words. Thank you infinitely, from the bottom of my heart.

maria kristhell leaning on her mom and dad as they smile and pose with her brother who is holding a smile train sign.
Smile Train

Although Kristhell’s dad had a difficult time bonding with her at first, with time and help, he was able to understand what it means to have a child with a birth difference. We’re so happy that Smile Train is dedicated to supporting families like this one all around the world so that they can be happy and healthy. 

Don’t forget to share this story to help them continue to do just that.

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