Sokim: A Moment of Panic, a Lifetime of Smiles

2 November 2021 | Smile Train

Sovann and Soy commuted 70 miles each way to Phnom Penh every day to earn a modest living. Though money was scarce in their home, love was abundant, and when they learned Sovann was pregnant, their joy was immeasurable.

Sokim smiling in the bamboo after his free cleft surgery

When her baby, Sokim, was born with an unexpected cleft, it all shattered. The questions hit her like hail. “How will we ever afford to care for him?” “Who will feed him while I’m away at work?” Panicked and overwhelmed, she asked the doctors to take him away and keep him.

They had a better idea. As she and her baby sobbed, the doctors acknowledged her fears and told her his cleft could be treated in just a few months at a local hospital — and that thanks to an organisation called Smile Train, all the care he ever needed would be free. Immediately, Sovann’s dark cloud lifted, revealing the new life before her as he truly was — delicate, perfect, and completely dependant on love only she could give him. Through tears, she whispered, “Everything’s going to be okay.”

Sokim playing in the hay outside his house

Still, the first few months of Sokim’s life were hard on the whole family. Cleft surgery cannot be safely performed on an infant less than three months old, and even then, only if the child has reached a healthy weight. But Sokim was not at a healthy weight. His cleft made him choke on breast milk and he cried with hunger night and day. The neighbours were no help; at first, they refused to even touch him because of his cleft.

Slowly, they all learnt to adapt. Sokim’s grandmother, who cared for him while his parents were away at work, discovered that she could feed him by soaking her finger in formula then letting it drip into his mouth. As for the neighbours, they got past the initial shock of his cleft and stepped up to offer the family comfort and emotional support, and even started a collection to help them make ends meet.

Close up of Sokim after free Smile Train-sponsored cleft surgery in Cambodia

When the day for Sokim’s cleft surgery finally arrived, the family walked into Smile Train partner National Paediatric Hospital in Phnom Penh feeling confident. “We were all calm because we trusted the doctors and their skills,” his grandmother explained. “Then when they brought him out and we saw his smile, we were so happy with the results and grateful to all of Smile Train’s donors who made it possible.”

Sokim with a cow in Cambodia

Sokim is now 11 years old. While he loves nothing more than spending a quiet afternoon tending to the cows on his grandparents’ farm, don’t let his mild manners fool you — what he really craves is adventure. “I want to be a police officer when I grow up so I can catch all the thieves and keep everybody safe,” he said.

Sokim holds a picture of himself before cleft surgery

He smiles when thinking about his future, and as he does, the tiny scars on his upper lip where his cleft used to be fade so much they’re barely visible.

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