Surgery gives kids their smiles and voices back

2015-06-05 18:34
(Tammy Petersen, News24)

(Tammy Petersen, News24)

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Cape Town - Shane is almost 2 years old, but Leoni has never heard him call her “mommy”. 

This may soon change as the little bundle of energy was among those selected for life-changing reconstructive surgery at Tygerberg Hospital on Friday.

Shane was born with a deformed tongue, a condition Leoni only discovered six months ago when she realised her son was not able to speak like other children his age.

“Even though he can’t talk, the two of us communicate perfectly,” she said, kissing him on his forehead.

“But I want to hear my child speak to me and understand what he says. Right now he makes sounds, which I then interpret, or he points out what he wants.

“This frustrates him. All around him, people are having conversations and all he can contribute is a few grunts.”

'I can’t wait to hear him speak!'

An hour before the operation, Leoni clutches on to Shane, wrapped tightly in a hospital-issued blanket.

“This is his first operation. It scares me he will go through this on his own, but I am so excited that when he comes back to me, he will have a normal tongue, just like everybody else.

“I can’t wait to hear him speak!”

The surgery was made possible through a partnership between the Smile Foundation and the hospital’s department of plastic and reconstructive surgery, with funding from Orbit.

The Smile Foundation assists children with any type of facial condition to receive free corrective plastic and reconstructive surgery in South Africa.

These include facial anomalies such as cleft lip and palate, burn victims and facial paralysis.

'Over 1 500 children have benefited'

Smile Foundation finance and fundraising executive director, Hedley Lewis, said the organisation has been partnering with academic hospitals across South Africa for 15 years to assist previously disadvantaged children who need reconstructive surgeries, alleviate backlogs in hospitals, encourage skills transfer and offer psychological help before and after surgery.

“The success of the Smile Week model has been widespread. To date, over 1 500 children have benefited from surgeries around the country through the partnership with state academic hospitals,” he said.

In this year’s leg, which coincides with Child Protection Week, children will finally have the ability to smile because of the work of Professor Frank Graewe and his committed surgical team.

“One of the children who is being operated on is a young child who experienced an accident and these surgeries highlight how the department of plastic and reconstructive surgery attend to numerous trauma cases over and above children born with facial anomalies.”  

Nikita, 7, from the Strand, told News24 she would love to make “lots of tiny plaits with my new hair” after her surgery.

She points to two bald patches on her head, a painful reminder for her mother of when her daughter was scalped in a pit bull attack in February last year.

Nadia recalled running from her home to a neighbour’s house after hearing screams for help.

“When I got there, I found Nikita’s friends shouting while sitting in a tree and my child [struggling] on the grass with her head in the dog’s mouth,” she said.

'I thank God every day'

When onlookers got the dog from her tiny body, Nikita was bleeding profusely.

“I am so glad she survived. The doctors said she had lost an exceptional amount of blood. I thank God every day I didn’t lose my girl that afternoon.”

 Nikita joins her mother on the couch next to her cot in the brightly decorated hospital ward.

“When they are done with the operation, my hair is going to grow this long,” she said, pointing to her lower back.

Nadia explained the Grade One pupil was receiving counselling to deal with the trauma of the attack.

“She also has lots of pent-up aggression, because children have been bullying her endlessly, calling her names and making fun of her,” she said.

“All any parent wants is for their child to fit in. To see her treated differently hurts me as much as it hurts her.”

The operation is Nikita’s fourth round of reconstructive surgery.

“My mommy is scared, but I am not,” she said. “When the doctors are done, I am going to be very pretty and I will smile at everyone every day.”

Read more on:    cape town  |  health

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