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A Common Bond Born in China

Former board member Tim Smith took notice of the quiet woman in her 40s because of the surgical mask she was wearing. But in China, where he was assisting ReSurge International’s (formerly Interplast) first surgical team trip to the city of Qiqihaer, seeing people wearing surgical masks is common; it is an act of courtesy to wear a mask in public if you have a cold. Still, Tim found the trip translator and approached the woman.

What he learned moved him to tears. In answer to his query about her mask, Shu Zhi told him that she wears a mask as a matter of course—to stop the impolite stares and derision from passersby who know no better. Shu Zhi had a pronounced cleft lip—and she’d lived with the stigma, and the mask, for all of her 42 years.

“I told her that my son was born looking the same way she did. I told her not to worry — in a week, she would not have to wear that mask any more. Her eyes filled with tears,” he said. And so did his.

More than 12 years ago, Tim and his wife learned from an ultrasound that their son would be born with a cleft lip and cleft palate. Their early fears were eased somewhat by the knowledge they soon gained. When young TJ was born, a cleft lip fractured his smile; the cleft palate made feeding difficult. But TJ was lucky: he was born in a country where even the poorest babies receive lip and palate repairs within the first few months of life. Many of the poor in the Global South do not have the luxury of the simple, hour-long surgery that can help them avoid a lifetime of disability, shame and ostracism.

Tim, his wife, Keri, and TJ only had to live with the stares for a few months. Tim remembers it well: “On May 15, TJ was born, and we started our journey down a new path. Over the next 5 months, we learned what it was like to get stared at … but we lived with those stares for only 5 months. Once TJ had his hour-long cleft lip surgery, the stares stopped.”

For more than 40 years, ReSurge has been working to repair the smiles of children less fortunate than TJ. As Tim said, “At its core, this is what ReSurge does. ReSurge provides free surgery that transforms bodies and forever puts people on a new path.”

To Tim, the reason TJ was born with a cleft lip and palate is all too clear: “Had TJ not been born with a cleft, I would not have found ReSurge. Now, I’m actively involved with an organization that puts thousands of people a year on a brand new, better path,” he said.

A few months ago, in the ancient city of Qiqihaer, China, Tim connected with just one of the thousands whose lives ReSurge transforms each year. And Shu Zhi’s shiny new smile helped make his world a little brighter.

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