Dreamland, or IcFEM Dreamland Mission Hospital to give it its full name, is a small hospital in rural western Kenya with only one full-time doctor. In 2014 the hospital opened an operating theatre. The theatre enables visiting surgeons to come and run camps there.
Camps concentrate on a single condition. For example, when I was at Dreamland there was a camp for those with cleft palates and lips. The operations were paid for by the international children’s charity, Smile Train. When a camp is about to happen, a radio announcement is made and leaflets are handed out. Those suffering from the condition come to the hospital where a team of specialists assess and operate on them.
I spoke to one of the parents, Chebet, whose daughter had come for surgery. As we talked Belinda tried to chew on a piece of bread, bits of which appeared in her nostril, providing a perfect illustration of one of the many problems people who suffer from a cleft palate have.
Aged nearly two, Belinda was listless and weak. She hadn’t learnt to talk because the gap in her palate meant that she couldn’t build up air pressure in her mouth and there was little tissue in the palate for her tongue to press against.
Chebet told me how he had taken Belinda to a number of hospitals before Dreamland but they had been unable to help her. A year earlier he had heard that Smile Train was visiting the hospital and, together with his daughter, he made the 2½ hour journey to the hospital to be assessed. Unfortunately the team had had to turn her away at that time. An operation would have been too risky because the then 11-month-old weighed less than 4kg (as a result of her feeding difficulties). She was sick and had a chest infection and would probably not have survived surgery.
The hospital treated Belinda’s ailments and put her on a feeding programme. At first, she was fed 10mls of nutritious fluid by syringe every ten minutes. After six week’s treatment she was ready to go home. Donors provided the family with money to buy locally produced high calorie food and to pay for the weekly 5 hour round trip to the hospital so that Belinda’s progress could continue to be monitored.
When we met, a year after her first visit, Belinda weighed almost 10kg and was ready for surgery. I watched as Anne Marie Pettersen carried the terrified child into the operating theatre. She tried to calm her down by singing to her until she succumbed to the drugs administered by anaesthetist Michael Carter. Anne Marie’s husband Bjørn was assisting surgeon Tony Giles with the procedure. The scrub nurse Agnes, a member of staff at Dreamland, was learning the procedure under the watchful eye of Caroline Rawson. This team are all volunteers who travel the world, unpaid, helping people of all ages with clefts. It was a privilege to meet them.
The long and difficult procedure took about four hours to complete. When Chebet came into the recovery room to pick up his daughter, he was amazed at the difference, describing her new appearance as a “miracle”.
Four months later, Belinda and Chebet returned to the hospital. Now that the swelling had gone down it was easy to see how good a job the surgical team had done. She has started to say a few words, is putting on weight and has the energy to run around and play. What a remarkable transformation!
Warning: The film, below, was shot during Belinda’s operation and contains scenes that some people may find difficult to watch.