Gustavo is a confident young man of 21 who was born with a cleft lip and palate. His mother, Maria, talked of her past working with her husband on a citrus plantation. They lived on the farm next to the location where pesticides were mixed. She recalled often feeling dizzy when doing laundry outside as the pesticides were handled. Runoff from the fields drained into a creek that led to a pond where they caught fish.

Environmental contamination is a known cause of cleft lip and palate birth defects. Maria’s first child, a daughter, was born without incident. However, after Gustavo was born six years later, she consulted with medical experts and she is convinced that the pesticide exposure was the cause of his clefts. She is glad that some of the pesticides that were used then are now banned.

When Gustavo was a child he had four surgeries to repair his lip and palate. His mother also took him to a speech therapist three times a week. Early and extensive intervention, coupled with Gustavo’s strong self-esteem, spared him the difficulties many children experience integrating with their peers in school.

Gustavo still needed more medical attention. Fundación Sonríe, based in Pereira, maintains a database of children with clefts and tracks their treatment. They contacted his family when Rotaplast first came to Pereira and he had a fistula repair. That is a common surgery to close a hole in the palate that sometimes occurs following an initial cleft palate repair.

Gustavo’s upper jaw was still recessed and on a previous Rotaplast mission, it was advanced forward. Yesterday, through the specialized surgical procedures offered by Rotaplast, he had an additional procedure to further advance the jaw.

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Gustavo currently works with his aunt selling merchandise while he attends a technical institute for a pharmaceutical career. He also enjoys playing fútbol with a local club. Maria and Jessica, his girlfriend, were keeping him company as he awaited discharge from the hospital.

Even though friends told Maria that Gustavo would never speak, she was persistent. With his dedicated family, supportive girlfriend, and Rotaplast, Gustavo now has a much brighter future.  

Jerry Meshulam, Photojournalist