A Chance at a Brighter Future: Cheikh’s Story

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“Life is hard… Having a child who was born without the ability to eat,” said Ndeye.

Ndeye’s only son, Cheikh, was born with both a cleft lip and a cleft palate. Because of these conditions, Cheikh struggled to breastfeed. Ndeye fed him milk from a bottle instead, trying desperately to make sure her baby had the nutrition he needed.

Swallowing was difficult, and food often spilled from his nose. As a result, Cheikh developed an aversion to food and kept to a diet of primarily infant formula over the next two years. Malnutrition stunted his development; although his three older sisters each walked by their first birthday, Cheikh passed his second, still crawling and not yet talking.

“I couldn’t leave my house or even go anywhere else,” Ndeye shared. “I was just looking after Cheikh to help him eat and survive.”

Though Ndeye was able to find a hospital that claimed they could help Cheikh, the operation was ultimately unsuccessful in repairing his mouth. Because Cheikh generally rejected solid food, he consumed copious amounts of milk, which strained the household financially. Cheikh’s father continued to work as a teacher, but he feared losing his job, as the family became outcasted from society. His peers felt that Cheikh’s poor health was reflective of his shortcomings as a father and as a man. Ndeye feared darker days ahead, as she expected the mounting shame to cost them the support of their community.

During a conversation with a colleague, Cheikh’s father learned about Mercy Ships, and the family decided to pursue healing on board.

However, before Cheikh could receive surgery, he needed to grow much stronger. Volunteer infant feeding coordinator Trina Laidlaw worked with Cheikh every day to help him gain enough weight to be eligible for his cleft lip repair surgery. She prioritized his nutrition, moving him from infant formula to one designed for toddlers to help him build muscle and gain energy.

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Trina’s interventions helped, and after two months, Cheikh had gained the weight that he needed to have the first surgery.

Ndeye feared that he would spend the whole next day crying and that his face would swell up to the point that he could not see. By a couple of days later, Ndeye had stopped worrying about side effects, accepting that the surgery had gone well.

“At that moment, I was very happy,” she recounted. Her husband called, and she said, “Cheikh’s dad was even happier than I was!”

Unfortunately, even with his cleft lip repaired, Cheikh still struggled with eating. This meant that Cheikh did not make his weight for a second surgery from Mercy Ships to repair his cleft palate. Despite not leaving Mercy Ships with the full picture of healing that had been hoped for, Ndeye was still able to return home with a new lease on life. The operation on Cheikh’s lip reopened her eyes to what was possible, and the compassionate care that they had received restored her faith in humanity.

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“If he wasn’t in this condition, people would be talking about him because he’s smart. He is not a lazy kid,” Ndeye shared. “He likes to play — he wants to play around all the time.”

Warmed by the acceptance they had experienced, Ndeye was ready to show the world her son: “Some people have never seen him since he was born. They have never seen him because I wouldn’t let him out of the house, but now, if I want, I can carry him and walk with him all around the neighborhood. Now, I can go wherever I want with Cheikh.”

Her commitment to her son and his health was apparent to those who had seen them on the ward. “Just that love, and just what she’s pouring into that is just really beautiful,” Trina said. “My hope is that […] she has been given reassurance that she is able to keep going.”

Ndeye resolved, “I will never be discouraged.”