When Fulbright U.S. Student Luke Juran met Sangeeta, he was conducting research and collecting data from post-tsunami villages in Tamil Nadu and Pondicherry in India. At six years old, Sangeeta was shy at first, and did not come out to meet him until he called to her to join the discussion. When she joined the group, Luke realized that the reason she was so reluctant was because she was suffering from a severe cleft lip and palate.
Cleft lips and palates are acute deformities that occur within the womb and that can lead to difficulty breathing, eating and speaking. In many cases, remedial surgery is simple and effective, but sometimes getting that treatment in rural parts of the world can be extremely difficult.
“I knew that I was expected to leave an indelible impact on the villages in which I conducted my research,” says Luke. He decided the best way to leave a positive impact on this community was to help Sangeeta.
Luke consulted Sangeeta’s family and Smile Train, a nonprofit that provides free cleft-lip and palate surgeries to children around the world. Soon, Sangeeta and her mother were on a bus to Madurai, where Sangeeta underwent the corrective surgery.
“Due to poverty, the family had planned for Sangeeta to endure the rest of her life with the deformity,” explains Luke. “Sangeeta used to be shy and was teased at school, but now she is more outgoing and her self-confidence is improving – now she enjoys smiling.”
Soon after, Luke met Poornaprakash, a six-year old boy suffering from a severe cleft palate - so severe, that he was unable to speak at all. Once again, Luke stepped in and helped arrange corrective surgery.
“Poornaprakash is slowly beginning to speak,” beams Luke. “The family was ecstatic to hear him speak for the first time.”
Luke’s interest in relieving the burden of cleft lips and palates continues. He is working with the Meenakshi Mission Hospital and Research Center and Smile Train to arrange a screening camp in Nagapattinam and Karaikal so officials can identify cases, provide counseling, and schedule remedial surgeries.
“My experience as a Fulbrighter has proven most rewarding,” reflects Luke. “It has aided my development as both a scholar and a global citizen. The Fulbright program enabled me to reach across national and cultural boundaries in an attempt to better the world through my academic and personal ventures.”