“She’s beautiful!” cried my mother, her face wet with tears as she caressed my tiny cheek. The baby that caused her and my father countless sleepless nights had finally arrived. Soon this special moment ended when medical school students entered the room to see a newborn with cleft lip and palate.
Cleft lip and palate is a birth defect that leaves babies with a split lip on one or both sides of their faces and an incompletely formed roof of their mouths. I had surgeries to correct my lip and palate at ages 10 weeks and 10 months, so I do not remember looking in the mirror and not seeing a scar. Two additional major operations followed at ages six and seventeen.
My parents raised my siblings and me to be grateful for the opportunities we have and to be accepting of the differences of others. Because of this, I always loved that I had a “broken smile”. I wanted to help other children with cleft lip and palate, so I saved my birthday and Christmas money every year to buy teddy bears to bring to the hospital every year during my annual clinic visit.
My cleft lip and palate has never been something that served as a mechanism of isolation or ostracism. It definitely could have been something that greatly impacted my childhood, especially my adolescence – when I watched my classmates become concerned with appearance and how others perceive them. Throughout elementary and middle school, I was teased and bullied for my appearance. I remember when the girl who sat next to me in first grade pointed out the difference between my top and bottom lip, and how I stared at myself in the mirror when I got home that day, wondering how I’d never noticed this “imperfection”. For this first time in my six years of life, I felt unworthy of love and ashamed of my appearance. When my flaws were pointed out, I felt so confused that I internalized the remark and thought about it for the rest of the day but avoided engaging in conversation with my classmate to escape further embarrassment.
In third grade, another girl made fun of the shape of my nose during recess in front of a bunch of classmates. This made me again feel those same emotions I felt before, ones that made me doubt my worth and regret all the times I’d felt confident in my appearance and in myself as a student and a friend. In fifth grade, I was teased on the bus for how crooked and strange looking my teeth were. By then, I was used to other people pointing out my flaws and knew to suppress my disappointment in myself, because crying in front of others seemed to be something that would provoke more torment.
However, because of my close relationship with my parents and their loving outward expression of my uniqueness, I always felt reassured and validated when arriving home from school. As a sophomore in college, I remember my grade school days with fondness, not because I’ve forgotten about being teased, but because my parents gave me the tools to handle my classmates’ questioning of my appearance and the confidence to never doubt my inner and outer beauty,. For as long as I can remember, my mom and dad talked about how my cleft is something that makes me special, something that helps me understand and execute compassion, and something that will motivate me to succeed in school so that I can realize my dream of becoming a physician.
To say that my cleft lip and palate is a blessing would be incorrect. I spent the summer before my senior year inside recovering from major surgery. I almost missed an entire cross country season due to surgical complications. I had braces for most of my high school career and a temporary fake tooth throughout my first year of college (that I loved to use as a fun fact during ice breakers!). Instead, I would say that my cleft lip and palate is something that has been and continues to present opportunities. It is an opportunity to appreciate what I have. It is an opportunity to look at life differently than other people consumed by the materialistic world we live in. It is an opportunity to realize the respect that people with differences deserve. It is an opportunity to never take anything for granted – even something as simple as a smile.