All Carolina Wanted for Christmas was for Alex to Smile
Proof that, sometimes, wishes do come true
In the moments after her doctor found a cleft on her baby’s ultrasound, Carolina lost herself. She thought they had been eradicated, that clefts were a thing of the past. But no matter how many long hours she stared at the ultrasound image as though trying to wish it away, the gap in her child’s mouth stayed just as it was.
Her husband, Alejandro, is a trauma specialist. He helps people cope through crises every day and his calm, practical approach helped Carolina accept that her son would be born with a cleft. Now all that mattered was getting him the help he needed.
Their top choice was one of Mexico’s leading cleft experts: Dr Jose Maya, director of Centro SUMA, a Smile Train Cleft Leadership Center in Mexico City. They reached out to him for help, even if they didn’t have much hope of seeing him, as they were nearly 500 miles (~800 km) away in Oaxaca.
One local doctor promised to operate on the baby as soon as he was born and have him back healthy in 24 hours. Another easy solution, a wish come true. Carolina wanted so badly to believe him, but her maternal instinct pressed her to stay away, and she kept looking.
Her instinct was right. Cleft surgery cannot be safely performed on a child less than three months old; that doctor was running a dangerous scam that could have severely harmed her baby.
At the Threshold
The day before she was due, Alejandro texted Carolina asking her to send a picture of the ultrasound. She complied, and a few minutes later, he told her Dr Maya was there, at their hospital in Oaxaca, eager to meet them!
Alejandro got to him first. The moment Dr Maya closed the door to the office he was using and looked him in the eye, Alejandro’s tranquil façade crumbled. Weeping, the trauma councillor confessed that he had been feeling panicked and overwhelmed since he saw the ultrasound. He had no idea how he would make it through tomorrow, but had been holding it together as best he could for the sake of his wife and older son.
Just down the hall, Carolina was getting the help she needed, too. Dr Flor Contreras, founder of Oaxaca’s legendary Fundación Contreras cleft centre, a Smile Train partner, showed her special feeding techniques that would help her baby grow up healthy and strong enough for surgery. With no roof to their mouths, babies with clefts often struggle to nurse and gain weight because milk goes up into their noses or down into their lungs, choking them.
Wishes and Stars
Carolina and Alejandro fell in love with Alex from his first cry. Once home, Carolina thought she was ready for the challenge of feeding him, but she never could have anticipated just how exhausting it would be to keep up with his special — and seemingly endless — feeding needs while still recovering from giving birth. Thankfully, she was never alone. The whole extended family also fell in love with Alex at first sight and lent support however they could.
As did their cleft team. Though Alex wasn’t yet old enough for surgery, he was big enough to receive specialised devices to prepare his mouth for when the time was right. He was a bit underweight, but Carolina believed that if she worked hard and stayed on top of his treatments and feedings, he could receive his first surgery by Christmas, when he would be about five months old. That spark became her north star, lighting her way through dark feelings and sleepless nights. It became all she wanted, her most fervent wish yet.
Their Number is Called
The call came toward the end of November: Dr Contreras said Dr Maya could perform Alex’s free, Smile Train-sponsored cleft surgery 9 December. At last, a wish had come true.
But from the moment he was wheeled out of the OR, it clear that the biggest miracle was in the results. The whole family was in awe of Alex’s new smile.
Still, they knew that this was only the beginning of his cleft journey. Carolina and Alejandro scrupulously brought Alex to every follow-up appointment for the other essential treatments he needed, including orthodontics, speech therapy, and further surgeries, all likewise made possible by Smile Train donors around the world who believe in the power and potential of a child’s smile.
A Constellation of Shining Stars
Today, Alex is a sensitive and empathetic seven-year-old, traits he learnt from growing up in an atmosphere of love, care, celebration, and respect at home and in community with other children with clefts at Fundación Contreras.
He says his biggest cleft-related challenge these days is pronouncing words. Though he is still in Smile Train-sponsored speech therapy, his most effective speech coach is his big brother, Carlos. They read stories, play games, and get into trouble together, all while Carlos helps him repeat words and phrases that he finds difficult.
And because clefts affect every member of the family, Smile Train also hosts get togethers for patients’ mothers. For Carolina, sharing space with other moms who know how alone she felt when she received the news and all the complicated feelings she feels every time she sees her son chew gum or smile has been nothing short of lifegiving.
She has made it her duty to teach the world that while clefts are still around, there is care, community, and unimagined strength available if you never lose hope that sometimes, wishes really do come true.
You can make children and families’ wishes for health, life, and smiles come true.