'Give me a high five, not your pity'

GROWING up with a cleft lip has not kept one Nelson Mandela Bay resident down and has even become a catalyst to her success.

Melanie le Roux was born with a bilateral cleft lip at a time when she said medical technology had not developed enough for her to have the cleft closed.

"Scans back then weren't as advanced as they are now and my parents only discovered my 'condition' the day I made my appearance in the world," Le Roux said.

"I was born with a bilateral cleft lip, my palate was intact. The nurses suggested that my parents take me to a plastic surgeon in Johannesburg, Dr Laurence Chait. I had my first operation at three months to correct the initial cleft and since then I've had nine to date."

Le Roux spoke at a function in Port Elizabeth last weekend to raise funds for Cleft Friends support group, and highlighted how far medicine had advanced since her childhood.

Now children can have their cleft lips repaired by the age of three months and a cleft palate between 12 and 18 months.

Le Roux has had operations to correct her jaw, implant screws to replace the teeth, plastic surgery to fix her nose and its appearance – a process she called "an uphill battle".

"My school years were the hardest, kids can be so mean.

"I was teased relentlessly and called everything from flat nose to scar face, and more than a few others I can't bear to mention.

"Luckily, I had parents who equipped me with a sense of humour and a fighting spirit and just a wee bit of sarcastic flair.

"They always told me to not take what others said to heart. But sometimes this is easier said than done.

"There is always that one kid who takes it too far and instead of running away in floods of tears and letting them see that they had hurt me with their awful words, I would get even and more often than not the little terrorist would end up in tears himself."

Le Roux talks openly about her childhood. She now does not take people who make rude comments towards her as seriously as she did before.

"Now that I'm older I don't take it so seriously, children are naturally curious and will stare at something that's different.

"I don't mind the odd second glance from a passing stranger or a question or two. But I can't stand for blatant staring, whispers behind a hand or looks of pity. I've often gone up to strangers who have a blatant disregard for my feelings and asked if they would like to take a photo – much to the dismay of anyone who happened to be with me at the time.

"I may look different but that doesn't mean there is anything wrong with me. I don't need pity, I need a high five," Le Roux said.

With her parents' support, Le Roux has risen above the teasing and unwanted attention to become the studio manager at Crackerjack – an advertising agency in Nelson Mandela Bay.

"Its been a physically and emotionally traumatic road. But with parents who always told me I was beautiful, that I was just as good as the next person or even better, I had a strong foundation for building the person I am today. I haven't hidden in the background. I've been an active participant in creating my life story.

"I have come to realise that outward appearance isn't the most important thing in the world. It's taken me a long time to accept the way I look and that no operation is ever going to fix me or make me 'normal'.

"I'm different, I was born this way for a reason, there is a great plan out there for me, besides, 'normal' is so overrated anyway.

"I may not have the perfect pout but I'm happy with who I am," Le Roux said.

ýInformation on Cleft Friends from Helena Cullis, 082-393-1206, e-mail info@cleftfriends.co.za