My Relationship With… CLP

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I was diagnosed with what was then referred to as a ‘hare lip‘ before I was even born; within my first post-natal week I had to be rushed to hospital to undergo corrective surgery. Cleft lip and palate, as the condition is officially referred to, is the result of tissues of the face not joining properly in the womb. This results in an ‘opening’ to the nose from the lip and/or palate (roof of the mouth). The cause is unknown in most cases.

The condition occurs in approximately 1 to 2 births per 1000 in the developed world, and I’m very lucky to have had a rather ‘mild’ case when compared to others. While I’ve had unhealthily frequent visits to the orthodontist over the course of my childhood, the impact on my speech, hearing and feeding has been low.

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However, having a ‘different’ facial structure compared to others when I was younger had a major effect on my self-esteem, and to this day I still sometimes unconsciously move one of my palms to cover my mouth and lips when meeting new people for fear of them noticing my ‘defect’. Having my picture taken is also something I struggle with at times; I’ve always hated looking at photos of myself as my mind always twists the image so that I look unnaturally out of place among others.

These are habits I’ve been trying hard to grow out of, and I’ve gradually accepted over the years that having CLP is something I cannot change – it is something that I can and will live with. As a teenager I took more of an interest in the condition itself, its origins and what options are available in terms of treatment; the outcomes are good in all the cases I encountered. I’ve also realised that while having CLP can be difficult and at times inconvenient, it nonetheless taught me more than a few life lessons while moulding me into the person I am today. CLP made other kids point and whisper when I was younger, yes, but I’ve striven to not let that define who I am and have built myself up in multiple other ways over the years – which I’m grateful for at least!

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CLP is managed primarily through orthodontic treatment and, at times, surgery. Being pulled out of the classroom for monthly dental visits was fun, I’ll give you that, but less so was having to wear braces for not one, but TWO separate periods during my teen years. A consequence of my CLP is that my upper and lower jaws were congenitally misaligned i.e. they were growing in the wrong way relative to each other, and this would have become a debilitating issue for me as an adult. A stopgap measure was a skin graft surgery when I was around 8; I spent a few weeks in hospital having some tissue from my right hip excised and re-attached to my upper left jaw. This form of plastic surgery was to repair the ‘hole’ left there by the cleft.

Then came the ‘big’ surgery when I was 19, during the summer holiday after the end of my freshers’ year at uni. My bimaxiliary osteotomy (try saying that 10 times fast) procedure was the one that the orthodontist had been prepping me for my entire life, and would hopefully be the be-all-and-end-all in terms of CLP treatment. This was where they fixed the ‘misalignment’ issue by literally detaching my lower jaw, readjusting it to the correct position and fitting in metal plates to hold it there (no, I don’t set off airport security scanners as a result). Coming out of anaesthesia in the hospital, I remember listening to THAT match where England lost to Croatia (and so the Cup didn’t come home after all) through the cries of the other men on the ward.

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Recovering from surgery over the next month would be hell, but was well worth it. Once all of the swelling subsided, I noticed the congenital abnormalities that the surgeons fixed, and some (like how my face was near-symmetrical for the first time in my life) that I hadn’t even realised were there. My jawline was also noticeably more defined, as many people would point out over the next few months. That summer also I resolved to make more of an effort at uni to get involved with societies and actually engage with my course – things from my first year that I had neglected, which as a result made my freshers’ experience rather lonely, especially compared to where I am now as an upcoming graduate. I entered second year much more confident in myself than I had been for a long time, and I think this was partly because I had overcome a massive life hurdle caused by CLP that, now cleared, allowed me to begin second year with a relatively fresh start.

This year it will be two years since the jaw surgery, and prior to the operation I was told that I had the option of undergoing an additional ‘corrective’ surgery to fix the remaining (minor) cosmetic abnormalities in my nose and lips left by CLP. While coronavirus has probably thrown a spanner in those works for the time being, I’m still torn whether to take that option or not. My younger self probably would have pushed for it in the first instance, but he also would have done well to embrace the art of not giving a f**k about what others think of you. The main lesson I’ve learned is to not let imperfections define your concept of ‘self’ – I think that has served me well so far and will continue to do so for the future.

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Deputy Sci/Tech Editor | Sub-editor 2019/20 | 3rd year Neuroscience student, i.e. drugs, brains and 100% pain

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