Consultant transforms lives of children with cleft palate

Chris Penfold, who works for a charity which goes to India every year doing operations to correct the cleft lips and palates of children from poverty stricken areas.


A private hospital in Wrexham is helping transform the lives of children born with a cleft lip or palate deformity in India whose families are too poor to access medical help.

Spire Yale Hospital has donated a specialist paediatric resuscitation kit to the Northern Cleft Foundation which one of its consultants, Chris Penfold, has actively supported for 10 years.

Every year he joins a team of medical professionals including surgeons, anaesthetists and nurses who travel to India to provide free corrective surgery for children from poverty stricken backgrounds. Each trip lasts for just under two weeks with the entire team donating its time and expertise.

Consultant oral and maxillofacial surgeon Mr Penfold said the gift of the paediatric resuscitation kit was a major boost to the charity which relies on donations and fund-raising.

Spire Yale Hospital was upgrading some of its equipment and no longer required the kit, but wanted to ensure it went to a good home. It would cost the charity hundreds of pounds to buy a kit.

Hospital director Sue Jones said: “We are delighted to offer this important equipment to such a worthy charity. The work it does for desperate children in India is admirable and this is a cause we would encourage people to do their utmost to support.”

The motto of the UK-headquartered Northern Cleft Foundation is ‘Giving Smiles for Life’ and since its formation 20 years ago it has done just that, radically changing the lives of 1,400 children in India.

Drawing professional volunteers from hospitals across the north of England and Wales, it annually sets up a cleft lip and palate camp at Nagpur, one of central India’s largest cities after Mumbai and Pune. There Mr Penfold and his colleagues undertake marathon operating sessions of between 12 and 14 hours at a time.

They also train local doctors and give advice on overcoming ailments associated with malnutrition in the young.

About 35,000 babies are born with a cleft lip and palate every year in India compared with just over 1,000 in the UK, but despite the high numbers these children are often frowned upon and forced to live in the shadows.

Demand for the life-changing surgery is huge with patients frequently travelling up to 10 hours by bus to reach the clinic.

Mr Penfold, who last went to India in January, said many of the young people affected by cleft palates are socially rejected by their local communities, they often cannot talk, and some villagers think they are cursed so won’t allow them to attend school.

He said: “There is a real stigma associated with cleft lips and palates in India, people do not understand what has caused it and so the affected children are often taunted and live as outcasts, rarely leaving their homes.

“Due to poverty some also suffer other complications such as TB, parasitical diseases and malnutrition.

“On occasions some of the children are too weak for an operation so we provide a regime of support for the family to enable the child to build up enough strength to undergo surgery the following year.”

The team perform the procedure mainly on babies and young children, but also occasionally on adults who have endured the physical and social disadvantages of living with a cleft lip or palate for many years.

Each operation costs an average of £200 and the charity also funds travel expenses for families to bring their children to the clinic, some from 200 km away.

The Rotary charity in India firmly backs the foundation, providing information to families in advance of the clinics setting up and helping persuade them of the benefits of bringing their children for treatment.

Mr Penfold, who has been a doctor for more than 30 years, said he had no hesitation stepping forward to support the foundation when it needed a cleft lip and palate surgeon.

He said: “The work we do genuinely transforms lives. These children have no future without surgery; many of them will not be able to get an education, a job or even get married as society places such a stigma on cleft lips and palates. Physically some of them will struggle to eat properly and to talk. One operation can change all that and provide them with much better prospects.

“That’s why a gift like this paediatric resus kit from Spire Yale is so important. Any specialist medical materials we receive are invaluable.

“Although the medical teams all give their time for free, the foundation has to finance all the equipment, the transport for families who need to reach the clinic and food for them once they arrive. We are only a small charity so every donation makes a real difference and goes directly to funding the cause.”

Among the UK volunteer teams are trainee doctors in cleft surgery and anaesthetics who consider it an immeasurable opportunity to be given further supervised training in the field. A number of local junior doctors in India also learn new skills via the clinics.

As well as the Nagpur base, the foundation has also funded outreach clinics in other areas of India including Mysore, Hyderabad and Kerala.

The organisation’s long term goal is to establish a comprehensive cleft lip and palate clinic in the Indian state of Maharastra, led by local medical professionals working in conjunction with the charity.

Mr Penfold has published research papers in his field of specialisms including head and neck cancer, and salivary gland disease as well as cleft lip, palate and facial deformity.

He is also a consultant with the maxillofacial unit at Wrexham Maelor Hospital, Glan Clwyd Hospital, Bodelwyddan and Alder Hey Childrens Hospital, Liverpool.

He lives with his family on an organic smallholding near Ruthin and when not working he spends his time promoting woodland preservation and tending his herd of Welsh Black Cattle.

“It’s how I relax,” he said.

For more information about the Northern Cleft Foundation, including its fundraising activities and how to donate, visit its website or write to Mr Penfold at Spire Yale Hospital, Wrexham Technology Park, Croesnewydd Road, Wrexham, LL13 7YP