While volunteering in the Congo for a week two years ago, Kelly Mabry saw no NICU (neonatal intensive care unit), nor any specialized feeding equipment for infants with craniofacial disorders. In fact, there was not even a shared language between herself and the family of Dekebele — a two-week-old infant dying from malnutrition because he was born with a bilateral cleft lip and palate. But with some help from Mabry – an expert on craniofacial disorders who screened patients before and after surgery – Dekebele successfully underwent a life-changing surgical procedure.
Mabry, who began teaching at Southern last fall as an assistant professor of communication disorders, served as a medical volunteer in the Democratic Republic of the Congo for a week in June 2011 as part of Operation Smile. That is where she met Dekebele and others like him who badly need medical attention for their communication disorders.
Operation Smile is an international children’s medical charity that provides reconstructive surgery on kids who have facial deformities, such as cleft lip and palate, in developing countries. The organization’s website describes a cleft as an opening in the lip, the roof of the mouth or the soft tissue in the back of the mouth. It also states that a cleft palate occurs when the two sides of a palate do not join together, resulting in an opening in the roof of the mouth. A child can suffer from a cleft lip or cleft palate, or both. If left untreated, it can cause serious medical complications, such as malnutrition, as a result of the difficulty in feeding that the birth defect causes.
In the Congo, Mabry was devastated when she saw that about 40 percent of the children were turned away from surgery because of malnourishment, a condition that greatly increases the risk of surgical complications. Babies with cleft palates cannot breastfeed properly, Mabry says, which relegates them to diets of sugar water and insufficient nutritional supplements.
As a result, Mabry says she felt called to teach mothers how to feed their babies and decided to create a workshop on these feeding techniques. Throughout her week-long mission, she led nearly three dozen workshop sessions.
Now, she wants to share with the Southern campus community that same sense of fulfillment she gained from helping others. She has created an Operation Smile Club on campus that seeks to help others in the Third World with similar health problems.
“I want students to be able to say: We made a difference! We changed the lives of 30 kids,” she says. “I believe that Southern’s Operation Smile Club can create a snowball effect of service, global awareness and a growing appreciation of other cultures.”
The goal of Operation Smile is three-fold – to increase awareness of the cleft lip and palate problem in the Third World, to raise money for the surgeries, and to educate our K-12 students about the importance of tolerance toward those with craniofacial disorders. Each cleft surgery costs about $240. “It’s a small price to pay to change someone’s life,” she says.
Mabry notes that in the Congo, there is a stigma against facial and bodily deformities due to cultural or a religious ideology. As a result, a cleft lip – which is clearly visible – is often repaired. But the palate – which is not seen by others – is left unrepaired. The lip surgery prevents the children from living in virtual isolation because of the stigma. Nevertheless, a cleft palate is a medical condition that should also be treated.
Mabry says she believes Southern is only the second school in Connecticut to have an Operation Smile club on campus.
Mabry’s passion for craniofacial disorders sparked her to pursue a Ph.D in communication disorders, which she earned in 2002 from the University of Connecticut. She has served on craniofacial teams as a speech pathologist since 1988 and is currently a member of the Connecticut Children’s Medical Center Craniofacial team in Hartford.
NEWS NOTE: The New Haven Register ran a story about Kelly Mabry’s efforts to help children with cleft lips and palates, as well as the creation of a campus chapter of Operation Smile, in its April 29 edition. The following is a link to that article: