My Life, Creating Smiles: How my life changed through helping children with cleft
Working with Smile Train reminds me of our purpose.
Veronica Yu, Speech Language Pathologist and Smile Train Partner, lives a life for smiles
When I first decided to take up speech therapy back in college, I did not know what to expect. I never knew that it would transform my life, while allowing me to help transform other people’s lives in the process. I am referring to children born with cleft, whose healing I have witnessed in my work as a partner for Smile Train.
Everyday around the world, 540 babies are born with a cleft, a serious health condition with potentially life-threatening complications such as difficulty eating, breathing, hearing, and speaking. Smile Train provides comprehensive cleft care to these children and I have been privileged to take part in this endeavor that has allowed me to grow personally and professionally, giving me deep fulfillment in what I do.
Let me tell you about Emman, who was 2 years old when I first met him in 2017. He had a bilateral complete cleft lip and palate. He had his cleft lip surgery from Smile Train in 2015, followed by a cleft repair in 2016. His mother, mommy Melissa, was a hands-on mom whose perseverance and constant presence I would always remember. She would take Emman for occupational therapy and speech therapy from Smile Train, traveling 50 kilometers each time. It was not easy for her or even for me, as Emman was challenging to handle during speech sessions. He would cry a lot. He would not take any toy presented to him, nor would he talk to anyone who approached him.
This went on for about two to three months, but his mother did not give up. Two years after, I invited Emman to join one of our speech camps, giving him an opportunity to interact and be with other children who were also born with a cleft. He was confidently commenting on everything he saw; he was playing with little kids that he just met; he was a different boy now. His mom thanked me for making Emman “school-ready”. In school, Emman received awards and was doing very well. It will still be a long journey for Emman, but he was able to make his family’s support and his mom’s effort all worth it.
Emman’s case always inspires me, but it is also a reminder of the integral part that speech pathology plays in the comprehensive care of children with cleft. Many patients have the impression that after cleft surgery, everything has already been corrected. However, this is not true. Cleft surgery is just the first step in the process. Speech therapy is needed to complete the gains that surgery has achieved.
As a speech-language pathologist (SLP), I have found it challenging to introduce speech services in cleft communities because of this lack of appreciation or awareness of the importance of speech therapy. For several reasons — may it be financial, lack of available SLPs, lack of awareness with the need of the intervention — most patients with a repaired cleft palate will only seek the help of an SLP after several years. This means that they have been doing the wrong production of sounds for the past years, even after the structure has been corrected. And since these errors have become a habit, it will then be difficult to unlearn them.
A typical speech session for cleft palate patients will include a lot of drills. It would require the patient to focus, be conscious and be accurate in every production. This is the reason why I always make sure that at the end of each target goal, I show the patients their before and after videos. I always look forward to their reactions — the look of disbelief and the look of success — that is my reward; that inspires me to keep going especially in times when I, myself, get frustrated or burnt out. In moments when the patients lose motivation, or when they start asking if there will really be changes in their speech, I just tell them: “Kapag gusto may paraan, kapag ayaw maraming dahilan.” As long as they are willing to improve their speech, I will do my best to help them.
One of the most important points I want to remind patients and their families about is the need to also look after the socio-emotional aspect of the patients. Many of them have lost their sense of belongingness, affecting their self-confidence. This is another area where speech therapy can help them. While this may be most challenging to address, it can still feel the most rewarding. We have to give them some time to open up, earnestly listen to them when they eventually speak, and contine to build a deep relationship with them.
Having worked with Smile Train as a speech pathology partner, I have learned that one of the best gifts one could ever give is hope. Whatever you may be doing, your gift of hope to a cleft patient means so much to them.
Working with Smile Train patients is my sweet escape. The words of gratitude from my patients and their families have blessed me in so many ways—I get to meet new people whom I share the same advocacies; I get rare opportunities to continue learning and develop my skills; I get to go to different places and get to know their culture and traditions. Working with Smile Train gives me a sense of belongingness. It gives me a sense of fulfillment because I know that I am doing something that I am good at—connecting to people.
This Christmas, let us remember that we are each other’s responsibility. It is my fond wish that more Filipinos would choose to become a speech pathologist, as the Philippines lacks speech pathologists who can share in the work that lies ahead. With the few number of SLPs in the Philippines, with a very small percentage focusing on cleft, it is heartbreaking to imagine that these patients are so close yet so far in achieving to live a normal life. This was something I witnessed when I was still volunteering with the Craniofacial Foundation of the Philippines, Inc, one of Smile Train’s partners. As a student, I joined several medical missions with a complete cleft team including surgeons, anesthesiologist, pediatrician, nurses, orthodontists and SLP. Cleft is a solvable problem, the solution is teamwork. After I graduated from a five-year course, I decided that I don’t want waiting to stop them from hoping. Someone needs to put meaning behind those new smiles.
Working with Smile Train reminds me of our purpose. To my fellow SLPs, let us be the solution to this solvable problem of cleft. We are called in this profession to change the world one smile, one sound, one word at a time.
This is a press release distributed by Greenbulb Communications