At 21 years old, Leonel has worn a bandana over his mouth for his entire life.
This is because Guatemalan-born Leonel was born with a cleft lip and palate.
From a remote village in Guatemala, Leonel’s father has spent years fiercely advocating for his eldest son’s medical care but has struggled to find the means to pay for the procedure.
Aside from the financial burden of cleft surgery, expenses include laboratory work, food, accommodation and travel costs.
“I looked for help everywhere but could not cover the cost for the surgery plus all of the other expenses,” he said.
This was until November 2022 when not-for-profit organisation Tess Unlimited heard Leonel’s story through their partner agency.
Tess Unlimited began in Guatemala in 2009 after founder Tessa de Goede volunteered with a local hospital in Guatemala. Volunteering in the nutrition project for severely malnourished children, Tessa felt an instant connection to the babies in the program born with a cleft:
“I started to help the nurses feed the children; some of them were babies with a cleft. I fell instantly in love with them. It was like love at first sight.”
Researching cleft care in Guatemala, Tessa discovered that medical treatment was limited to mission teams flying in from developed countries.
“Immediately, I noticed this is not how it should be,” Tessa said.
“Cleft care needs comprehensive care, and not only with the surgeries. We offer nutrition, speech therapy, psychology, dental and orthodontics.
“This year, we opened the Tulipanes Hospital, the first cleft hospital in Guatemala and in the next five years, we would like to add ENT care and be able to help every child with a cleft in Guatemala with the right treatment plan.”
Doctors were already booked out for Tess Unlimited’s surgical week in November, however, the organisation scrambled to provide Leonel with his life-changing surgery.
Leonel’s entire village rallied around him, gathering money to support travel costs for Leonel and his father to travel to the Tulipanes Hospital in Antigua, Guatemala for his operation whilst Tess Unlimited funded the remaining costs.
As Leonel recovered from his surgery, his father celebrated the monumental change access to specialist medical care has made to his son’s life.
“Even though he is the oldest of five, and 21 years old, he will always be my baby,” he said.
“Leonel used to wear a bandana to cover his mouth, but that is not necessary anymore. His life has changed in a matter of hours.”
Leonel’s surgery is one of almost 400 surgeries Tess Unlimited has provided this year, an immense increase from the 20 surgeries provided in their opening year.
The increase in surgeries is partly due to the organisation’s nutrition program which has supported 2,721 infants to date.
Many children born with a cleft are malnourished due to their difficulty with breastfeeding, and families in poor areas are unable to afford milk and specialised feeding equipment.
“The milk project is an essential part of our organisation,” Tessa said.
“Children that are not the right weight have no chance of surgery. We provide milk, breast pumps, vitamins and medicines and give every baby a special Haberman drinking bottle.
“In a large number of cases, the inclusion of a child in the project not only opens the door to surgery, but the milk also saves the child’s life.”
To support Tess Unlimited’s milk program and to follow their work in Guatemala;
Visit the Tess Unlimited Website : https://tessunlimited.nl/en/
Follow Tess Unlimited on Instagram: instagram.com/tessunlimitedguatemala