Tammy Ingram is a historian, a writer and a professor at the College of Charleston. Her and I became fast and furious friends because of a twitter comment about Rachel Maddow on Meet the Press and the discovery that we both ride the same motorcycle, a Triumph Thruxton. But, why should you care?
Last year when we decided to participate in the Celebration of Smiles event to raise money for Operation Smile, I had NO IDEA that my dear friend Tammy had such an important reason to celebrate. So this year, when we set out to raise money again, I asked her to sit down with me and tell us why this opportunity is so personal to her.
Tanya Boggs: Tell us a little about your history? Where are you from? What are you doing now?
Tammy Ingram: I grew up in a small rural community in Southwest Georgia, where my dad was a peanut farmer and my mom was a bank teller. I spent most of my childhood playing music and expecting to become a professional musician, but somewhere along the way I decided to become a historian, instead. I went to college at the University of Georgia and then to graduate school at Yale. Now I’m a history professor at the College of Charleston, where I teach courses in U.S. History and Southern History.
Boggs: Why is the Celebration of Smiles event so personal for you?
Ingram: I was born with a cleft palate. I was among the lucky ones who did not also have a cleft lip, but my cleft palate was a pretty severe one. There were no doctors or hospitals nearby who could perform the surgery I needed, so I had to go to the Medical College of Georgia in Augusta. I realize now that it was not a risky procedure, but it was a pretty frightening ordeal for my parents. They were fortunate to have access to health insurance, and to good doctors who could guide them, and me, through the surgery and recovery. I don’t think I realized that until I was much older, when I discovered how common a birth defect this is and yet how difficult it is for many families to afford the surgery.
Boggs: How old were you when you had your surgery? Do you remember anything from before the surgery?
Ingram: I was around 18 months old when I had my surgery. Although I have no memories from before the surgery, I do remember a lot of stories my mother has told me about those first 18 months. My parents brought me home from the local hospital without any guidance about how to care for an infant with a cleft palate. For the first few weeks of my life, my mother was terrified that I would starve to death: Most of the formula she tried to feed me went into the cleft and came out of my nose, and the doctors didn’t have any suggestions about what to do other than force feed me if I lost too much weight. She figured out how to feed me when a stranger called her one day out of the blue and told her to buy a special kind of baby bottle with long, narrow nipples that would allow the formula to bypass the cleft and drain down my throat. The woman on the other end of the phone had heard about me through family friends. Her own son had been born with a cleft palate several years earlier, and she knew my mother was probably struggling to feed me. Years later, my mom liked to say that this woman had saved my life. That was probably a bit melodramatic, but she certainly did save my mother a lot of worry.
Boggs: Have there been any long term side effects from being born with a cleft palate?
Ingram: When I was very small, I had some temporary speech problems, but I didn’t have any significant problems until I began teaching college classes during graduate school. I noticed that after long lectures I had trouble speaking. It felt as though the back of my palate was not functioning properly, and I couldn’t always finish words. A surgeon at the Yale School of Medicine performed a very simple procedure called a “Z plasty,” which is a technique typically used to reorient scars so that they’re less visible. In my case, it lengthened my palate so that speaking for long periods of time became a little easier.
As with my first surgery, I was very, very fortunate to have access to good doctors at university hospitals. But children who do not have the initial reconstructive surgery at the right time will almost certainly have difficulty with speech.
Boggs: How do you think having the surgery changed the course of your life?
Ingram: Without the surgery I would have had a permanent speech impediment and serious difficulties eating. As soon as my palate was repaired, I was able to live a very, very normal life.
People don’t realize how common these birth defects are: 1 in 1000 babies are born with a cleft palate and cleft lip, and 1 in 2000 are born with one or the other. These problems are very easy to correct through surgery, but without treatment the physical and psychological effects are quite serious.
A special thanks to Tammy Ingram for sharing her personal experience. Will you join us and help us SAVE a SMILE and change a life?