Cleft Lip: Cheikh’s Story

“Life is hard… Having a child who was born without the ability to eat”, said Ndeye.

Ndeye’s only son Cheikh was born with both a cleft lip and a cleft palate. Because of these conditions, Cheikh struggled to breastfeed. Ndeye fed him milk from a bottle instead, trying desperately to make sure her baby had the nutrition he needed.

Swallowing was difficult and food often spilled from his nose. As a result, Cheikh developed an aversion to food and kept to a diet of primarily infant formula over the next two years. Malnutrition stunted his development; although his three older sisters each walked by their first birthday, Cheikh passed his second still crawling and not yet talking.

“I don’t really understand why he refuses to eat,” his mother lamented, stricken with worry for her little boy.

It had been a tough two years before she brought Cheikh to Mercy Ships on the day of his second birthday. “I couldn’t leave my house, or even go anywhere else. I was just looking after Cheikh to help him eat and survive,” said Ndeye, who gave up her job to stay home and care for her son.

Because Cheikh generally rejected solid food, he consumed copious amounts of milk, which strained the household financially. Cheikh’s father continued to work as a teacher, but he feared losing his job, as the family became outcasted from society. His peers felt that Cheikh’s poor health was reflective of his shortcomings as a father and as a man. Ndeye feared darker days ahead, as she expected the mounting shame to cost them the support of their community.

Cleft Lip: Feeding Program

During a heart-to-heart conversation with a colleague, Cheikh’s father learned about Mercy Ships, and the family decided to pursue healing on board.

However, before Cheikh could receive surgery, he needed to grow much stronger. Volunteer infant feeding coordinator Trina Laidlaw worked with Cheikh every day to help him gain enough weight to be eligible for his cleft lip repair surgery. She prioritized his nutrition, moving him from infant formula to one designed for toddlers to help him build muscle and gain energy.

Trina’s interventions helped – after two months, Cheikh had gained the weight that he needed to have the first surgery.

Ndeye feared that he would spend the whole next day crying and in pain. But a couple of days later, Ndeye had let go of any fears about side effects, relieved that the surgery had gone smoothly and safely for little Cheikh.

“At that moment, I was very happy,” she recounted. Her husband called, and she said, “Cheikh’s dad was even happier than I was!”

Cheikh, cleft lip patient

Hope Reimagined

Following his cleft lip repair, Cheikh continued to grow healthier day by day. Because he still faced some struggles with eating, he didn’t make the weight needed to be strong enough for a second surgery on board to repair his cleft palate. Ndeye returned home with a new lease on life and hope that a future operation to fully heal Cheikh’s cleft palate would come one day. The operation on Cheikh’s lip reopened her eyes to what was possible, and the compassionate care that they had received restored her faith in humanity.

“If he wasn’t in this condition, people would be talking about him because he’s smart. He is a not a lazy kid,” Ndeye shared. “He likes to play—he wants to play around all the time.”

Warmed by the acceptance they had experienced on board, Ndeye was ready to show the world her son: “Some people have never seen him since he was born. They have never seen him because I wouldn’t let him out the house, but now, if I want, I can carry him, and walk with him all around the neighborhood. Now, I can go wherever I want with Cheikh.”

Her commitment to her son and his health was apparent to those who had seen them on the ward. “Just that love, and just what she’s pouring into that is just really beautiful,” Trina said. “My hope is that […] she has been given reassurance that she is able to keep going.”

Ndeye resolved, “I will never be discouraged.”

Cheikh, cleft lip patient

To enable other patients like Cheikh to have access to life-changing surgeries onboard a hospital ship, you can donate here or to discover other patient stories.


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