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Filipino teenager to speak for the first time

Monalisa's Story

Monalisa is a 16 year old Filipino girl who was born with a severe bilateral cleft lip and large palatial defect. When Monalisa was just four months of age, her parents took her to see Val Smith-Orr, an Australian nurse who was in the Philippines working for 6 months with local families to help improve feeding children with Cleft Palate. Monalisa was malnourished weighing just 2.7 kilos. Her parents were unable to care for her and cope with her additional needs due to her medical condition and they surrendered Monalisa to Val.

Val stayed in the Philippines since Monalisa came into her life, because she couldn’t abandon her. For the past 16 years Val has been a mother to Monalisa and has been attempting to obtain permanent residency so she can officially adopt her. Val started a clinic and hospital ( in the Zambales province for burns patients who are poverty stricken and could not otherwise afford medical treatment. Her project is funded by monetary donations from the public and the costly dressings are usually donated by medical companies. All her staff are volunteers. Her incredible love and passion for these burns patients and her successful hospital initiatives have been recognised by the Australian government, culminating in her Order of Australia Medal (OAM) for Services to the International Community through Nursing in December 2020.

Over the years, Val has helped arrange 6 operations for Monalisa in the Philippines by local and international medical missions. Unfortunately, despite the numerous procedures Monalisa’s large palatial defect remained, meaning she had unintelligible speech and nasal regurgitation of solids and liquids. Monalisa suffered bullying as a result of her inability to communicate and a space in her upper lip. Monalisa shared with us “over the years I have been bullied because I can’t talk properly. That made me not talk much. This surgery will mean a lot to me.” Her wish is to be understood by others …“to talk properly and well and get the words more understandable. I will be so happy to talk to mum, my family, and friends.”

Monalisa required a very complex plastic surgery called a ‘free radial forearm flap’, a procedure not available in her homeland, so the Children First Foundation began the journey to bring Monalisa to Australia. Children First Foundation facilitates life-saving and life-changing surgery for disadvantaged children from developing countries through the generosity of donors, corporations, trusts and foundations.

Monalisa arrived in Melbourne on a medical visa under the sponsorship of Children First Foundation (CFF) just before Christmas 2021. Her dream of being able to talk properly and be understood was now one step closer. After a stay in hotel quarantine, she was able to go to the CFF Retreat, however, due to the disruptions in surgery caused by COVID, she had a longer than expected wait. Monalisa’s Surgeons A/Prof James Leong and Mr Nelson Low asked the CEO of Mulgrave Private Hospital, Maree Wilson for help.

Maree and the team at Mulgrave Private Hospital were more than happy to partner with Children First Foundation, providing pro bono theatre time, ICU and ward stay. We are all extremely happy and grateful to be part of this life changing surgery for this young lady and to be able to assist Australian Nurse Val in her time of need and also recognise all her humanitarian work over the last 25 years. The surgeons and anaesthetist, our scrub and scout nurses as well as our theatre technicians were happy to volunteer their Saturday during a 7.5 hour long procedure. A/Prof Leong explained the procedure “Essentially we had to take skin and fascia from the forearm with its artery and vein and the flap was inserted into the palate to close off the hole. The flap was kept alive by joining the radial artery to the facial artery in the neck and the vein from the flap had to be connected to a vein in the neck”. Monalisa spent a week in hospital recovering but even at an early stage she was doing well.

Once Monalisa got back to the retreat, the Children First Foundation’s Program Operations and Development Manager sent us this message. “Looking at Monalisa today, it is difficult to believe that this time last week she was about to have complicated surgery to completely repair her palate, something she has been waiting on for a very long time. The outcome for Mona has been incredible, all thanks to you, your beautiful and amazing staff and to the brilliance of A/Prof James Leong and his team. Mulgrave Hospital has a standard of excellence which you can be very proud of. Val and Mona are so very grateful that Mona was able to have the surgery at Mulgrave and for the care that they have had. Thank you for your kindness, your generosity, and your empathy”.

Monalisa now has the very best and brightest future ahead of her thanks to this amazing result following this remarkable surgery. The Executive team at Mulgrave Private Hospital couldn’t be prouder of our surgical, nursing and administrative team who worked together to facilitate this wonderful outcome. We look forward to watching Monalisa continue to flourish post her surgery and enjoy a very bright future ahead of her.