Girl Talk: I Was Born With A Cleft Palate

I was born with a giant, gaping hole in the roof of my mouth. Also known as a cleft palate, the cave within my lips has been through a 20-year nightmare from which I recently awoke. A rather rare occurrence, I was born with a cleft palate, but not a cleft lip.

My cleft palate surgery was performed when I was two-years-old. The opening was closed, but the odyssey was only beginning. A couple of years later, I had another surgery to have little tubes implanted into my ears, called ear tubes, to help me hear better. My cleft palate would cause many earaches and a mild loss of hearing, so these tubes, protected from the water with custom-made, hot pink earplugs, were crucial. Later on in life, I would have these tubes ripped out of my ears while wide-awake, resulting in one of the two most painful experiences of my life. The doctor told me I could punch him after he was finished, and I took him up on the offer as I was screaming bloody murder.

Elementary school began, and so did the daily cranking of my palette expander. Dad would use the blue tool to stretch my miniscule mouth each day in my parents’ bathroom. Our special bonding moment occurred when he was all up in my grillz (by second grade I had a full set of braces), causing an aching discomfort throughout my school day.

Junior high came around, and the only device I hadn’t been tortured with was headgear. Braces, a palate expander, and a couple of retainers later led me to the first of three momentous days of total mouth mortification. In 7th grade, I had just moved from a private school in Ireland to a public school in Texas. With no friends by my side, I waited in the lunch line alone. A kid I had spoken briefly with before was in line in front of me.

“Jordan, would you look at the mouth on this girl. Daley, why don’t you smile for us?” said the boy.

They laughed and I turned bright red, humiliation written all over my tightened lips.

When a distant uncle (whom I barely knew) asked me at a family event if the kids in my grade made fun of my voice, I just stood there, glared at him, and walked away.

In high school I resembled a thug that had just gotten punched right in the mouth. Because I had not been born with my second pair of “lateral incisors,” I had a black hole next to my front tooth. My braces, which I had now had on and off for about five years, continued to change colors, while my gap grew.

I had to skip my prom sophomore year due to jaw surgery. My severe under-bite was fixed after they broke my jaw and moved the top forward, allowing screws inside my head to hold my chomps together. To this day, I’m still afraid of the airport scanners going off as I walk through.

My second most painful experience occurred when I awoke from the surgery and had a foot of gauze pulled out of my nostrils from the deviated septum surgery I had also had that day. The mirrors in the hospital and at home were covered with large sheets of paper, transcribed with notes like “We love you, Daley” and “You did great!” I didn’t touch my blended-up Thanksgiving dinner that week.

February 12, 2009 was the momentous day that I finally got my braces off. Celebrating with my family and friends, I didn’t let anyone forget I had had braces — or something metal in my mouth — pretty much since the day I was born.

My three failed implant surgeries took the biggest toll on my eyes — my tear ducts, to be exact. Being told three times I would have to wait another six months to get my implanted teeth made rapids flow down my cheeks and onto my lap as I struggled to drive my car home. My clear retainer with fake teeth attached was not cutting it. Years later, the waterworks were on again, as my eighth mouth doctor spent four hours on the finishing touches to my two implants and four veneers. A couple of months afterward, I was out to lunch with my cousin to catch up, and an old man approached us. “Are you two sisters?” the man asked. “No, we’re cousins,” we laughed. Then the man looked directly at me and murmured, “You know, you should think about getting your mouth fixed.” He was suggesting I get the jaw surgery I had already had.

But those tears were the last I would shed over my deformation. I’ve come too far and gone through too much to spend any more time dwelling on the past. These days I focus on how, when I go into the dentist to get my teeth cleaned, a crowd of other dentists and assistants are called in to prod and poke into my tiny mouth with utter amazement. With now a surprisingly high pain tolerance, both physically and emotionally, I love sharing the story of my 20-year, eight-doctor, and four-veneer triumph with anyone that’s able to recognize the battle my pearly-whites and I have been through.

Contact the author of this post at [email protected] Image is of the author as a baby.