Domingos arrives at Quelimane Provincial Hospital for surgical intervention. Photo: Zeke du Plessis.
After 48 years, a new future for Domingos
Domingos has an indomitable spirit with a physique to match. Calloused hands, muscled arms, and shoulders that look like they could carry the weight of the world.
In a sense, they have. Because this man carried the stigma of an untreated cleft lip for 48 years.
When he made his way to the Operation Smile medical mission site in Quelimane, Mozambique, Domingos didn’t know what to expect. He never knew that surgery could repair his cleft. All he had was a faint hope that a poster he had glimpsed could be the start of a new life.
Is this possible?
“My neighbors and headman came to me a month ago,” he explained. “They told me about Operation Smiile. I thought to myself, ‘Is this actually possible?’”
Growing up in a small rural community in Mozambique’s Zambesia province, Domingos always felt lost and alone. No one else in his community was born with a cleft lip. As he spoke about being bullied and judged, his eyes reflected the pain he’s endured over the years.
Defying the odds
But Domingos proved to be resilient. Just the fact that he survived into adulthood means he defied incredible odds. Nine out of 10 children who never receive treatment for their cleft conditions die before their 20th birthday.
Though the social stigma of cleft is severe in Mozambique, Domingos surrounded himself with people who loved and accepted him. He even found a wife and fathered a son. Now in his 20s, Domingos son helps him farm a small piece of land.
Sadly, Domingos’ wife passed away several years ago, and he has no other family members. Since someone had to mind the farm, Domingos’ son was unable to travel to the mission with his dad.
Daring to believe
In any case, Domingos was not sure that his cleft lip could be repaired after so many years. When a volunteer showed him before-and-after images of a man of a similar age from Ghana who received cleft lip surgery, he exclaimed, “It’s not possible!”
After our medical volunteers confirmed that Domingos was healthy enough to undergo surgery, his operation was scheduled for the first day of surgery.
Sitting in the pre-operative room, Domingos was both nervous and determined. He was welcomed into the operating room by our volunteers, including Dr. Geronimo Brilao, a Mozambican surgeon who was observing the mission. They exchanged a few words in Portuguese before Domingos’ live changed forever.
Seeing his new smile for the first time
After the final suture was closed, Domingos saw his new smile for the first time. All his doubts became nothing more than a memory.
“When I look in the mirror, I am very happy,” he said. “I am a strong man now.”
Domingos admires his new smile while resting at the patient shelter. Photo: Zeke du Plessis
The day after his surgery, volunteers and staff were surprised to see Domingos sharing laughs and celebrating with people they hadn’t previously seen around the patient village. It turned out that Domingos did in fact have a sister, brother and cousin.
“I have experienced this before,” said Carlos Mahalambe, an Operation Smile patient advocate in Mozambique. “It’s easier for people to say they don’t have family when they are still dealing with shame. They prefer to wait to see what will happen (with their surgery).”
Domingos’ brother, Alberto, said that life was very difficult for his sibling growing up. Even when they heard he was coming to the mission, they remained skeptical about his proposed surgery. But on this day, the beaming smiles and lingering glances at Domingos’ new smile showed that they are now true believers.
“We thought there was no cure,” Alberto said. “But now we have proof. When he goes home, everyone will admire him because no one expected this. Now his life has changed. He is a new-born man.”
His cousin, Daniel, added: “To me, he was always a good man. I hope Domingos can forgive those who rejected him, and carry on with his life.”
Because of his cleft lip, Domingos had been reluctant to seek a new partner. But after his surgery, he said, “I think it might be time to start thinking about getting married again one day.
“I don’t know how to thank the team for everything they have done for me. I thank God. They must continue to do this.”