Amidst the blaring noise of countless vehicles and the pollution they generate, fresh lettuce and pechay thrive in a plot of land inside a private subdivision in Novaliches, Quezon City. The tasty greens basked under the afternoon sun, ripe for harvest.
These vegetables grow easily under an urban environment, making business not too difficult for the family of 16-year-old Mark Andrew Bilgera. He and his uncle Edwin Ola tend to their plots of land not far from their quaint home. Around them, the homes of the wealthy watch on as uncle and son strive to live in such a home one day. If nothing else, this is what they came here in Quezon City to do.
Mark’s cleft lip and palate, however, hinder him from finishing his studies. Unable to withstand callous words from his classmates due to his appearance, Mark stopped going to school after Grade 6. His uncle urged him otherwise to no avail.
“I tried to convince him to finish his studies, but he doesn’t want to,” says Edwin.
Since then, Mark has been spending his life in the small farm, allocated to them by the president of the local homeowners association. Instead of chasing after the prize of a better life ahead, he chooses to lie low, out of sight of a prejudiced society. He barely speaks to people other than his uncle who fancies sharing stories while tending to the fields.
“Mark is shy when talking to others because they don’t understand what he says. But when it’s just the two of us, we engage in long talks, although we still have difficulty understanding each other sometimes,” Edwin narrates.
Mark’s older sister Janelyn lives with her grandmother in another far-flung part of Quezon City. She rarely gets to see him, but she winces knowing that her brother goes through an ordeal he doesn’t deserve.
“As his sister, it pains me to see him getting picked on. I hope that his bullies would stop picking on him,” says Janelyn.
For that, Great Love took swift action.
Before the Holy Week festivities in mid-April, Tzu Chi volunteers paid Mark and his family a visit in Novaliches. Upon learning that the visit coincided with Mark’s 16th birthday, the volunteers got him a birthday cake in addition to the 20 kilos of Taiwan rice. Such a simple pastry brought smiles to a family struggling to survive in the big city.
Regaining what was lost
A post-birthday present for Mark came more than a week later.
Before he knew it, he was spending the night in a ward at the Metropolitan Medical Center in downtown Manila. The next morning, he was in the operating room face-to-face with Tzu Chi International Medical Association (TIMA) surgeon Dr. Ramon Lao. Tears rolled down his face in fear of the procedure, but the doctors assured him that everything would be okay.
On April 19 at 9:30 a.m., the painstaking process of restoring his upper lip began. Cheiloplasty, as it is known, the procedure saw a great change in Mark’s appearance. For over four hours, Lao and his colleagues worked, even so far as to forego lunch for the patient’s sake.
Regardless, resident surgeon Kelvin Tsang believes that the successful cheiloplasty will greatly help Mark trust society again.
“This surgery will greatly help his self-confidence. Children his age normally are bullied because of his appearance. Now, this will help him make new friends and peers and help him socialize,” says Tsang, who worked with Lao in the operation.
Two weeks later, he was back in the fields again helping with the family business. The gaping hole on his upper lip had been closed through a graft taken from behind his ear. Stitches aside, the cleft lip that caused so much suffering for so long was no more. Mark’s aunt, Maria, hopes that this marks the start of a new chapter.
“I can ask Mark to run errands outside. Sometimes, I even bring him with me to the market. He no longer feels embarrassed to buy breakfast, among other things,” says Maria.
Tzu Chi volunteer Lugenia Macaraig, who visited the family after the operation, has a message for other youths in similar situations.
“I want to tell those under similar situations to not be embarrassed about the way they appear. They can be proud of working hard at home, which is better than many youths today idling all over the place. I really saw that Mark earns his keep,” says Macaraig.
Then, Tzu Chi learned that the cheiloplasty is just the beginning of a series of operations to last over the course of several months. Doctors told Mark and his family that his palate and some of his teeth needs fixing to fully restore his ability to speak clearly.
Nevertheless, the 16-year-old has taken the first step to a normal life.
Because of his appearance, Mark rarely talks to others outside of his family. He spends the most time sharing stories with his uncle Edwin Ola (left), especially when tending to the fields. 【Photo by Jonas Trinidad】
Mark spends his day tending to the vegetable fields near their home inside a private subdivision in Novaliches, Quezon City. Among the vegetables they grow for a living include pechay, spinach, and lettuce. 【Photo by Jonas Trinidad】
As the visit of Tzu Chi volunteers coincided with Mark’s 16th birthday, the volunteers decided to get him a cake for his family to enjoy. 【Photo by Jonas Trinidad】
Medical staff of Metropolitan Medical Center in Manila bring Mark to the operating room for his cheiloplasty. Mark and his family spent the night before at the hospital. 【Photo by Jonas Trinidad】
Inside the operating room, a medical staff comforts a crying Mark, assuring him that everything will be okay. 【Photo by Jonas Trinidad】
TIMA surgeon Dr. Ramon Lao (center) leads the cleft lip surgery with his team of doctors and nurses. 【Photo by Jonas Trinidad】
With skilled hands, the cleft lip undergoes major structural changes to help close the gap. 【Photo by Jonas Trinidad】
Surgeons derive skin from the back of Mark’s ear to plug the gaping hole in his upper lip. Skin grafts are common when patching physical defects. 【Photo by Jonas Trinidad】
Resident surgeon Kelvin Tsang patches up Mark’s open wounds near the end of the operation. Overall, the surgery took more than four hours, but the fixed upper lip is proof of its success. 【Photo by Jonas Trinidad】
Weeks following the successful surgery, Mark is back again on the fields with his uncle Edwin and aunt Maria. His parental figures hope that Mark returns to finish his education, which he was forced to stop because of his bullies mocking his cleft lip. 【Photo by Jonas Trinidad】
Mark and his aunt Maria bundle lettuce and spinach for their customer: Tzu Chi volunteer Lugenia Macaraig (center). 【Photo by Jonas Trinidad】