Finding her voice

Netcare Foundation gives 19-year-old cleft palate sufferer the gift of clear speech

Tuesday, October 7 2014

I never knew I was disabled until I went to university. When I was around people I didn't know very well I would not say anything as I would usually get a surprised or disgusted look when I spoke. It took me a long time to make friends at university because I would always remember the looks that people used to give me.

Vhutshilo Mudumela is a 19-year-old BSc Chemical Engineering student at Wits University. Until June this year, Vhutshilo had a cleft palate, a birth defect which occurs when a baby's mouth does not develop properly. It manifests as a large gap in the roof of the baby's mouth and makes speech rather difficult. Although this physical impairment can be fixed when a baby is just three months old, Vhutshilo was only operated on a few months ago.

On 19 June 2014, Professor Laurence Chait, a plastic and reconstructive surgeon at Netcare Parklane Hospital, performed the operation to close her palate and, in doing so, open up her confidence. Professor Chait and his multi-disciplinary team, along with the support of the Netcare Foundation, have treated approximately 360 individuals, most of them children, for cleft lips and palates since 2002 on a pro-bono basis.

"Most of these operations are performed when the patients are children," notes Professor Chait. "It is inconceivable to me how Vhutshilo managed to communicate for all these years, much less get six As in grade 12. It is important that more people know about this procedure so that they can spread the word that there is help for cleft lip and palate sufferers and they need not, literally, suffer in silence."

Vhutshilowas born in a village in Limpopo called Nzhelele and was part of a very supportive family and community, "My family and friends, especially my mom, always treated me like I was normal. My primary and secondary school teachers got to understand me well, which was why it was such a huge adjustment when I came to university in Johannesburg."

It was through a good school friend that Vhutshilo got to know Dr TendaiSingo, a general practitioner at Orkney Hospital, who was familiar with Professor Chait's work in the plastics and reconstructive field. Now, with the help of speech therapist Pauline Ramushu, Vhutshilo is living a life she never thought possible, "I can communicate with people whom I don't know. Before I used to be very shy to talk to people but now it's easy, even if I have to repeat some words," she says.

Vhutshilo's weekly speech therapy sessions entail articulation placement, which involve teaching her where to place her tongue when she speaks. Because of her disability, Vhutshilo had an excessive flow of air through her nose, which made her speech sound very nasal. Through the use if special techniques and exercises that have been taught to her she is now starting to control this.

"She is so motivated to speak clearly, which you can see in the way that she practises all the exercises I give her at home," says Pauline of Vhutshilo. "Already she has shown a remarkable achievement in just a few months. It is more difficult for older patients like her to improve upon their speech, as we are trying to change a lifetime of bad habits, but Vhutshilo has taken up the challenge and is meeting it head on."

As for the future, Vhutshilo dreams of making the people in her village proud of her, and sees herself as someone who will change people's lives. "The Netcare Foundation and Professor Chait brought my confidence back. I hope God blesses the professor and his team so that they can keep on doing this beautiful work," enthuses Vhutshilo.

For more information on the cleft lip and palate programme at Netcare Parklane Hospital you can contact Professor Chait's office on 011 484 3703.


Issued by: Martina Nicholson Associates (MNA) on behalf of Netcare Foundation
Contact: Martina Nicholson, Graeme Swinney, Sarah Beswick or Jillian Penaluna
Telephone: (011) 469 3016
Email: [email protected], [email protected], [email protected] or [email protected]