October 30, 2010

The rain may have stopped, but the pain and devastation continues. And they are likely to continue for a long time. This article is one of seven in Newsline‘s special coverage of the ongoing humanitarian crisis and how it is affecting the lives of Pakistan’s most vulnerable citizens, the country’s food supply, the fragile economy and the neglected environment, as well as what Pakistan’s politicians and bureaucrats are doing about it all. More articles will be published over the coming days.

I first met Salma at a school-turned relief camp in Hyderabad. We were there to distribute rations and Eid gifts for children a day before Eid. The thought of seeing a smile on the children’s faces at the sight of new clothes, shoes and bangles kept us restless for days, until we finally began the distribution.

We entered a dimly lit room, crammed with women, children and swarming flies. Children had lined up against the walls, anxious as we unpacked the clothes and began to hand them one by one. Most of them were extremely eager, coming forth and beaming confidently as soon as we took out a dress that matched their size. It is here that I came across Salma. She was fidgety and as soon as I handed over the clothes to her, she immediately ran back and hid behind her mother.

Seven years of age, Salma has a cleft palate. Cleft palate is a birth defect that affects the upper lip and roof of the mouth. This happens when the tissues that form the roof of the mouth and the upper lip don’t join before birth. The problem can range from a small notch in the lip to a groove that runs into the roof of the mouth and nose. Apart from the physical deformity, patients with a cleft palate have difficulty eating, talking and, at times, the condition could lead to severe ear and lung infections. Additionally, since these children do not have a hard palate, they are not able to suck, which leads to an increased number of deaths during infancy.

Fortunately, Salma had survived the ordeal as an infant because she was not breastfed. But her deformity could lead to other, more serious and fatal medical problems. The only solution to this problem is a hard palate surgery and lip reconstruction. Even though providing such specialised medical assistance was not part of our relief efforts, my concern for Salma’s future motivated me to go beyond the usual relief efforts. After all, she would probably never have access to an expert in cleft palate surgery.

Before we left the camp that day, I asked her mother if she would agree to a surgery if one could arrange for it, and she said she would be more than willing as it would change her daughter’s life forever. Within days, we were able to find a surgeon: Dr Ashraf Ganatra, project director of Smile Train, a US-based non-governmental organisation involved in helping patients with cleft lip and cleft palate across the world. He carried out the surgical procedure free of cost.

I cannot forget the tears of joy in Salma’s mother’s eyes. She said that the floods had turned into a blessing for her, a miracle that had changed her daughter’s life forever. Salma is now back in her village in Hyderabad, after a successful hard palate surgery. Her lip reconstruction is due after six months and her family has promised to bring her back to Karachi for the procedure.