There are few who get the short end of the stick in a worse way than those with severe facial deformities.
As the anaesthesiologist for the Pietermaritzburg Craniofacial Unit, I saw these patients a month before their surgery, when they came for assessment and planning of their operations.
Some had arrested growth of their mid-face. Their noses were squashed against their faces and their lower teeth protruded as much as two centimetres beyond their uppers. Their eyeballs bulged, from shallow undeveloped sockets, like a bullfrog’s. Their profiles — with a small mid-face wedged between normally developed foreheads and lower jaws — were C-shaped punctuated by bulging eyes near the top and protruding teeth at the bottom.
Others had eyes as much as eight centimetres apart, giving their faces a peculiar triangular shape, while others had sharp pointed noses, almost no cheekbones and a receding chin, making them look like strange birds.
One child had a huge cleft that extended through his palate, along his nose and beside his eye. His mother had named him Goodenough.
Many of these unfortunate people were kept holed up in a back room out of society’s sight.
What do you do when you have a face that makes people recoil when they see you? Characteristically, when I saw them at the Clinic, they looked down, first to the right then to the left, trying vainly to hide their faces, the source of their ugliness, too ashamed to look up, or look me in the eye. In spite of my caring, and being there to help, they endeavoured to hide.
How like them we sometimes are with God — trying to hide because of who we are, unwilling to see that He is loving and caring, looking beyond our ugliness to what we can become in Him.
For, indeed, in a physical sense that’s what we did in the Clinic. We looked beyond what they were, to what they could become. The Surgeons took photographs, measurements and 3D CT scans, and devised the operations together. Later, they used the CT scans for computer simulations of what they planned to do. I evaluated the patients for the anaesthetic risk, how best to produce optimal operating conditions, and what postoperative ICU management they would need.
Can you imagine what it must be like to spend most of your young life locked up or hidden away? Imagine having people shudder and look away when you walk down the street.
Now, picture looking at yourself in the mirror. Your eyes no longer bulge, but gaze back clear and straight, you smile and your teeth are in line, in fact for the very first time you can feel your upper and lower teeth meet when you chew your food. You walk down the street and no-one stares. You are free. You were dealt the short end of the stick, but that is behind you now. You can dream and plan.
In all my years of practice, I can think of few things that gave me more satisfaction than having one of these patients, now normal in appearance — sometimes frankly beautiful — look me in the eyes and smile.
Yet many of the patients had skills to learn and habits to unlearn. Early on, the Craniofacial Unit incorporated psychological counselling as part of the treatment. The stigmata of past rejection lingered; many didn’t know how to deal wisely with their newfound freedom, trusting all and sundry in the fresh joy of being accepted.
Again there are parallels with our spiritual walk. As Jesus sets us free from the terrible ugliness of sin, there are bad habits to unlearn, and new wisdom to be gained. We need discipleship and wise counsel.
In a sense, each of us is like a craniofacial patient, though many do not realise it. We have been dealt the short end of the stick, being born into sin. Deep down, we know we have an ugly side, which we try desperately to hide, though God, of course sees it all. He has all the means to transform us, but we need to come and ask.
When we do ask, and allow Him to transform us, nothing gives Him greater pleasure than to see us smiling confidently, able to look Him in the eyes. Because of what He has done at Calvary, as we come to Him in faith, we’re sure of our beauty as His new creation, ready to plan and dream.