The road to acceptance

HELPING others come to terms with the initial shock of giving birth to children with cleft lips and palates is giving new life to one Nelson Mandela Bay woman. 

A cleft lip or cleft palate occurs when the mouth or lip of a baby does not form properly during pregnancy. This results in the lip or the roof of the mouth not joining together properly, leaving a gap in the mouth.

As a result of this, children born with cleft lips or palates can experience problems with feeding, talking, ear infections or hearing loss and problems with their teeth.

Biance de Villiers serves as part of Cleft Friends – an organisation giving support to families of children born with cleft lips, palates or both – which forms part of the Smile Foundation. De Villiers said her journey to joining Cleft Friends in Port Elizabeth was not an easy one.

“When I was in the hospital just after I had given birth to my daughter, Helena [Cullis, founder of Cleft Friends] came to visit me. Initially, I really didn’t take well to her visit because my daughter was born with a cleft lip and palate and Helena’s son was only born with a cleft palate.

“It was only after she invited me and my husband to a Cleft Friends breakfast that I was able to open up and meet other women who had children that had the same as my daughter,” she said.

According to the Smile Foundation, there are three types of cleft conditions:

ý A cleft lip – which is either complete or incomplete and either on one side of the lip or both sides. Surgery can be performed between three and six months after birth and involves stitching the skin of the lip together.

ý A cleft palate – this is when the cleft palate affects parts of the soft palate and extends into the hard palate and the gum. Surgery can be performed between four and 12 months after birth and involves repairing the area in layers.

ý Cleft Lip and palate – this is a one or two sided split that runs from the base of the nose through the gums and palate. It is possible for this to occur while the nose and gum remain joined. Surgical procedures for this involve a combination of the above two.

Nearly two years later, De Villiers still becomes emotional when she talks about how her daughter Milanje looked “completely different” after the surgery to correct her cleft lip and palate.

“When I was 22 weeks pregnant, I was told that my daughter had a cleft lip and palate and really, up until I gave birth to her, I believed that there had been a mistake. I had no experience of what that was, I had never seen nor heard of a cleft palate and I was scared, shocked and in denial.

“At four and a half months she was operated on. It felt like I gave my baby to them and they gave me someone else’s child. She didn’t look the same and it was quite hard and I had to build a bond with her again,” she said.

Despite her initial resistance to accepting an invitation to join the organisation, De Villiers and her husband, Francois now offer the same support to families who need it.

“I’ve come to know now that everything happens for a reason and my baby was born with a cleft palate and lip for a reason, it wasn’t just coincidence. And for us to support other parents going through this is also what we need,” she said.

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