With an unwavering decision and a fighting spirit, he battled the odds to bring a smile to his face.
Devalagan Muthulagan’s childhood was not that of a ‘normal’ child’s. Born with unilateral cleft lip and palate (commonly known as CLP), Devalagan was always seen as a ‘different’ child, often ridiculed by schoolmates and called names. Feelings of hurt and anger overwhelmed him and at the age of nine, he attempted suicide. The tortured teasing lasted from primary to higher secondary schooling.
“I felt no one understood me because no matter how I excelled in my studies or co-curricular activities, kids often called me ‘budak sumbing’ (cleft lip boy),” says Devalagan.
Asking his parents for an explanation did not help much. They gave him a simple answer, referring to an Indian superstition as the most possible cause. In that superstition, it is believed that when a woman is carrying a child during the solar eclipse, she should not ‘cut’ anything or use sharp objects.
Overcoming negative thoughts and hurtful feelings
Delavagan struggled for years with negative thoughts and a great desire to be ‘normal’. Over the years, his thoughts and feelings turned to indifference. It was only after he entered medical school and learnt about cleft lip that he understood what he had was idiopathic (a disease with an unknown origin) in nature.
Growing up, Devalagan did his best to maintain normalcy in his life. He did all that a normal boy would do. “I read, I ran, and I’ve played quite a number of sports while growing up. But I love to read. Classics, history, geography, philosophy, and the list goes on.” Books and achieving academic excellence became his main priorities, which in a sense, were his childhood comfort and support.
His medical condition also caused him ear pain and some eating difficulties. “I could not enjoy fishes that were too bony and I couldn’t drink too fast for the fear of choking. Sleeping was partly difficult due to the deviated nasal septum hence I had some sleep apnea.”
However, he didn’t allow his medical condition to hamper his spirit. Despite his handicap, he studied hard and excelled in his studies. He applied for and received a full scholarship to study medicine.
Searching for an answer
Prior to attending medical school, he searched for medical services for his condition and found these in a medical center in Kuala Lumpur. Seeking out and meeting the experts was fruitful as they were positive about the treatment and the possible outcome.
Devalagan’s surgeon explained to him that it’s advisable to complete the various stages of the operation before a patient turns 18. However, the medical team were confident and went ahead with the surgeries, making a life-changing experience for Devalagan. They explained that each stage represents corrective operations and treatment for the cleft lip, jaw and nose so that the patient can speak clearly and smile brightly after the operations.
“They were delighted to have given me a brighter future and a reason to smile,” Devalagan comments, smiling.
Devalagan also knew that in order to pursue his dreams to become a surgeon, he had to get medical treatment. Yet, one thing held him back – finance! His doctor advised him to apply for the Khazanah-IHH Healthcare Fund and helped him through the process of application.
For the first two years, he had to undergo orthodontics treatment and this was done while he was studying medicine. After his latest surgery in August, Devalagan waited eagerly to graduate as a doctor in October when he turned 24. His final surgery is rhinoplasty (plastic surgery performed on the nose) and lip revision, which is scheduled for December, during which time he’s waiting for his housemanship to commence.
From patient to surgeon
Devalagan explains that the idea of becoming a doctor was instilled in him at a young age, nurtured by his mother’s suggestion because he achieved academic excellence at an early age. He grew up listening to his parents’ comments and gratitude to his surgeon and this drew him closer to the medical world. Although over the years his ambitions and perception in life varied and he wanted different things in life, his final choice was that of medicine.
“Becoming a surgeon was a gradual decision. Meeting and having learned under the tutelage of some of the pioneers of surgery and Past Presidents of College of Surgeons Malaysia inspired me to become a surgeon.”
On the positive and brighter side of all these, Devalagan notes that as a patient he realised a lot of things which would be able to help him in his medical practice.
“I realised that with so much information I have in hand, I was still scared and it was nerve wrecking procedures. It also made me realise, how scary it would be for my parents who do not have the proper information, to go through these procedures.”
“Honestly, I’m thankful for all the help that has been given to me.”
A correctable defect
As a person who has gone through CLP and as a doctor, Devalagan advises those who have CLP or parents with a child who has CLP to seek medical help as CLP can be corrected.
“Having gone through these since young, I want to prove to others that I was more than what they see me as. I know it can be hard, growing up being different – having a scar on the face, having a crooked nose, the chronic sinusitis that you have to suffer on a daily basis, ear infections, speech difficulties because we tend to have nasal twang, etc. But, the only motivator is yourself and no one else can motivate you to brush all the negativities aside and accept yourself for who you are.”
Devalagan also advises for those who need finances to go to charitable organisations, such as, Cleft Lip and Palate Association Malaysia (CLAPAM) that can help children with this medical condition.
“I have been so blessed by the wonderful support from my family, doctors and the Khazanah-IHH Healthcare Fund. I can now fully and passionately immerse myself in my chosen field – medicine. I now wear a big SMILE on my face.”
“If we are not going to accept who we are, how can we expect people to understand and accept us? This is a correctable defect and it’s possible for us to look normal.”
About Cleft Lip and palate
Cleft lip and cleft palate are facial and oral malformations that occur very early in pregnancy, while the baby is developing inside the mother. Clefting results when there is not enough tissue in the mouth or lip area, and the tissue that is available does not join together properly.
How a Cleft Lip or Palate Forms
During the first six to 10 weeks of pregnancy, the bones and tissues of a baby’s upper jaw, nose, and mouth normally come together (fuse) to form the roof of the mouth and the upper lip. A cleft happens when parts of the lip and mouth do not completely fuse together.