Ann Marie Campolattaro, MD, volunteered with Operation Smile on her first mission in November 2010 to screen children for cleft lip and palate surgery in Guwahati, India.
A cleft lip or cleft palate is a split in the oral structure, and it is one of the world’s most common birth defects. Though the cause is unknown, this condition is unusually high in the Guwahati region. For children in India, this presents nutritional and physical challenges. Mothers feed their babies boiled rice instead of breastfeeding because cleft palates complicate the process.
“The malnutrition of my patients was shocking,” Dr. Campolattaro said. “I often treated one-year-olds weighing 13 lbs., a weight normal for babies three to four months of age. Since malnourished mothers could not produce enough milk, they would feed their babies boiled rice water causing them to gain weight at abnormally low rates.”
During her two-week stay, Dr. Campolattaro screened 600 to 700 patients, or 40 to 50 patients per day. She often treated a wide-range of minor illnesses, including ear infections and sinus infections. Since malformation of the upper airway affects the middle ear, many patients had scarring in their ears from untreated ear infections.
“Repairing cleft lips fixed more than the lip,” Dr. Campolattaro said. “The people of Guwahati saw cleft lips as an evil mark or a result of bad parenting. Surgery repaired and restored these children and their families to their community.”