By Rebecca Drew
THIS BEAUTIFUL British woman is sharing her journey to self-acceptance after being born with a cleft lip and palate and undergoing four surgeries to transform her face after she received cowardly anonymous messages from kids at school sarcastically saying they hoped she wouldn’t die in her next operation.
Radiographer assistant and NHS volunteer, Lauren Cross (21) from Pontefract, West Yorkshire, United Kingdom, was born with a cleft lip and palate and had the support of her close-knit circle of friends and family growing up but found the transition from primary school to secondary school challenging.
Luckily, Lauren says she was never bullied to her face, but she was frequently asked questions about her cleft from people she didn’t know and believed that school-peers would gossip about her appearance behind her back, leaving her unable to stand up for herself. One day she overheard a boy talking about her nose and bravely chased him down, so she could get his name and tell a teacher. As well as this, Lauren would receive anonymous messages on social media – including one on the day of her school prom, calling her scar face and sarcastically wishing she didn’t die during her next operation.
Throughout her childhood and teenage years Lauren suffered with severe ear infections, which made it difficult for her pursue her passion for swimming and had braces for four years. Lauren had her first surgery when she was three-months old and another at three-years-old, followed by a bone graft to her gums using a piece of her hip bone when she was ten, and her final operation, an open cleft rhinoplasty when she was 17.
“I must admit it wasn’t always easy – particularly the operations, countless hospital check-ups, and pain of severe ear infections, which I have luckily now grown out of, and having to wear braces for a long four years as part of my treatment,” said Lauren.
“The worst part was having to have time off school, as I hated missing out and not seeing my friends.
“I was lucky to have a very good group of supportive friends growing up, especially through primary school. The biggest challenge was the transition to high school. A lot of the kids who didn’t know me would ask questions about my cleft which I didn’t mind, and whilst I never got bullied, I got the impression that people would talk about it behind my back so I couldn’t stick up for myself, and I received anonymous messages on social media.
“I remember a message on the day of my prom calling me scar face and saying that they hoped I didn’t die when I had my next operation in a sarcastic way. It really annoyed me, because I had no idea who said it, but I remember telling myself that they’re just cowards for not letting me know who they are in the first place.
“At high school and sixth form, I only had issues with older boys who I didn’t know who would tease me and try to embarrass me.
“Back when I was in year seven, when one older boy shouted something about my nose, I actually chased him around the school and tried to find out his name and told the teacher. I didn’t think he expected me to chase him. I surprised myself sometimes with how tough I was.
“The first two operations I had I can’t remember, but from what I was told by family they were extremely successful, so much so that no further operations were needed on my lips as the scar healed really well.
“The biggest and most traumatic operation for me was my bone graft. This entails taking a piece of my hip bone, and putting it in the gum where my cleft was to close the gap. That way, it would allow teeth to grow.
“However, it only partiality worked, one tooth grew, but I still had a big gap. I also got an infection, and became ill, so I had to stay in hospital an extra two weeks. I hated it because I was missing time off school, and was worried I would get kicked out of the school play.
“My mum also had my younger sister to look after, so it was a stressful time for all of the family. It was a lot to go through at that age, so I didn’t want to have it done again. I had a false tooth put in a few years later and I still have it to this day almost ten years later.
“The operation I remember the most is the open cleft rhinoplasty where cuts were made across my nostrils. I woke up with ‘packs’ in each nostril, and a splint held over my nose with tape. I had two weeks off college to recover.
“The most scary part was when I almost sneezed shortly after my surgery! I would sit and hold my breath, and grip on to things just so the sensation would ago away. Luckily it did and I was so relieved.”
A cleft is a gap or spilt in the upper lip and/or roof of the mouth which is present from birth. It is the most common facial birth defect in the UK and affects one in every 700 babies born.
Cleft lips and palates can sometimes cause a number of issues before surgery is carried out which include; difficulty feeding, hearing problems and ear infections, dental problems and sometimes speech problems, which often improve after treatment.
Lauren has never let her cleft lip and palate hold her back and focuses on positive vibes to get her through difficult times. She enjoys going to the gym, doing yoga, dancing, mountain biking and fishing and hopes to be an inspiration to other people born with clefts and parents who might be worried about their children.
“For me, it’s all about surrounding yourself with positive vibes, whether that be people, places, or your jobs and career,” she said.
“I have always tried to be as honest, open and positive about having a cleft lip and palate so I can set a good example for any worried parents and other people with clefts, and they can always speak to me about it if they have any questions and feel comfortable talking to me about it.
“As a thirteen and fourteen-year-old teenager it bothered me as I was worried that it would give people a false first impression of myself. For example, I didn’t want people to just see my as, ‘the girl with the cleft’, but just for who I am and my personality.
“However, a few years passed and as my final operation was on the horizon, I questioned whether I wanted rhinoplasty as it would change my nose slightly. However, I knew that it would also benefit my breathing, as it would help open up my nostril.
“I feel that friends and family are very proud, and that’s all that matters to me. Me and mum felt bitter-sweet when I got discharged from the cleft team in November 2015.
“It was quite emotional after being on this journey with them for nineteen-years.”
Lauren has shared her inspirational journey on Instagram, and finally she gave her words of advice to others who might be struggling to come to terms with their cleft.
“Never be ashamed of who you are, your scars are a part of you – be proud of them,” she said.
“Also, social media is a fantastic way to raise awareness. By simply sharing a photo, and using hashtags, or visiting the CLAPA (Cleft Lip and Plate Association) website.
“Some amazing profiles on Instagram such as CleftClub are great where you can find many inspirational stories like mine. Remember, you’re never alone.”
For more information see www.instagram.com/lozzcross