Overcoming Adversity: A Cleft Palate Survivor’s Journey to a New Smile

The journey to a new smile may be utterly challenging for some. However, 26-year-old Opeyemi Bankole, a dental technician, is a perfect example that with the right support and determination overcoming adversity and achieving one’s dreams are possible. Rebecca Ejifoma details her inspiring experience following her surgery for cleft palate

It was a Monday evening of October 2, 2023. A large part of Lagos mainland was lit up at sunset, thanks to the numerous generator sets giving residents much joy but with the inevitable noise pollution. Many Lagosians were inevitably snoring the night away after a busy Monday workload and round-the-clock business hours. But Miss Opeyemi Bankole couldn’t help but chat about a few of her favourite things.

First, it was about her love for meeting people. Then from expressing her drive to learn new things, and relishing all kinds of music to her unquenchable desire for all foods, it was a no-holds-bar for Bankole. “Every food is my favourite,” she says.

Amid this cheerful girly chit-chat moment, Bankole recounted how at age 21 she realised all the bullying, and teasing that damaged her confidence would soon go with the wind, having been born with a cleft palate.

According to Smile Train, a nonprofit organisation and charity providing free and holistic corrective surgery for children with cleft lips and palates, clefts are serious medical conditions affecting millions of people globally. And one in 700 babies are born with cleft lips and or cleft palate. 

Her Pre-surgery Journey

Going through life in the Ketu area of Ojota, Lagos, Bankole narrated her ordeal before the surgery. “My experience before the surgery isn’t something I always want to remember anymore because it wasn’t easy. Should I talk about those bullies, mimicking, jestings, and all sorts?” she lamented.

While acknowledging the role of developing thick skin, the 2018 Pogil College of Health Technology graduate continued, “I had a whole lot of experience even at a younger age, of course, had low self-esteem and was always scared to talk in public. Gosh, it wasn’t easy at all.”

So when Bankole’s uncle initiated the conversation of Smile Train providing surgeries for clefts and palates, “I was just eager and happy to have it done as fast as possible,” she expressed excitedly. 

Journey to Recovery 

After the surgery, “The recovery process was faster than I expected. And I’m glad I recovered well. I’m grateful to my uncle who initiated the conversation of surgery for her cleft palate,” she acknowledged.

Bankole got all the support she needed to live her best life. The surgeons, therapists, doctors and her family emboldened her to work hard to develop her speech and communication skills. “I received all the best support and love. My parents, especially, were scared but I stood my ground. I told them I was going to have it done no matter what. They succumbed to my decision,” she emphasised. “There were no unexpected challenges nor complications during and after the process.”

Coping After Surgery

While expressing excitement so far after the surgery, the dental technician admitted that although some people still find it difficult to hear me, “I don’t care anymore like I did before”, she said. 

It has impacted me in a very positive way because I raise my head so high you know— And the moment I stopped caring about what people would think about me was the end of it. 

“Your opinion about me doesn’t define me”

Despite the travails, Bankole chose to never let her condition limit her potential. Like a warrior, she underwent surgery in 2019 to repair her cleft palate courtesy of Smile Train.

In Africa, Bankole is one of the 170,000 beneficiaries of the Smile Train surgery since 2002 while over 1.5 million surgeries have been achieved globally since 1999.

She lends her voice to other warriors

As a strong believer that fortune favours the brave, Bankole has crafted soothing words for others living with cleft palate or cleft lips, encouraging them to chin up. “I will say to everyone having or going through this same experience – remember you’re the architect of your life. You can always win like other people do. Don’t forget you have a brighter future ahead,” says Bankole.

Importance of Surgery

The World Health Organisation sees surgery as often the only therapy that can alleviate disabilities and reduce the risk of death from common conditions. It says that yearly, many millions of people undergo surgical treatment, and surgical interventions account for an estimated 13 per cent of the world’s total disability-adjusted life years (DALYs).

Taking a cue from WHO, Smile Train has recommended that it should be treated within the first three to six months after birth. Cleft palates typically can be operated on between eight and twelve months. Most children with clefts undergo a series of surgeries as they grow and develop.

According to Consultant, Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery, University College Hospital Ibadan, Dr Adeola A. Olusanya, when a cleft palate surgery is done properly and the palate is functional, it is a whole new world for the patient. “An infant born with a cleft palate is challenged by two main impairments stemming directly from this anomaly; feeding and speech challenges. 

“With age, the affected individual can adjust (to a degree) to the feeding difficulties but the speech is amenable to surgery primarily.”

Speech, says Olusanya, is an essential tool a person uses to interact with society. Therefore, she pointed out that speech impairment can predispose to social isolation, depression and several psychosocial problems.

The maxillofacial surgeon, however, is confident that an adequately repaired palate can mitigate these challenges. “After a palatal repair, feeding can be as the individual wishes as the nose is now separated from the mouth and the patient does not need to avoid some food types like spicy foods.”

Giving a word for parents of children with cleft palate conditions who are considering surgery, the surgeon, who boasts of 15 years of active practice,  recommended that parents and guardians should identify a centre known for their good outcomes. “The first palatal surgery is the best chance for a good speech and subsequent optimum quality of life.”

Her counsel is to help every Nigerian living with a cleft lip or cleft palate to have their smiles back again just like Bankole. 

Truly, it was a roller coaster of emotions for a very long time. When Bankole’s joy came, she persevered and emerged with a beautiful smile and a positive outlook on life. 

Indeed, she is a testament to how cleft palate warriors can overcome all odds and realise their full potential. For Bankole, it isn’t just a whole new world, there is a new horizon to pursue. 

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