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Scottish woman talks about life with a cleft palate, which has seen her undergo 12 bouts of surgery

Matilda had 12 surgeries to reconstruct her cleft palate, including two bone grafts from her hip.

A  beautiful young Scottish woman who was born with a cleft lip and palate has shared stories of the horrific abuse experienced by Ethiopian sufferers, following a trip to the African country as a charity ambassador.

Originally from Edinburgh, successful make-up artist Matilda Lansdown, 28,
understands the difficulties of looking different only too well, after being born with the facial difference, causing a gap or split in the upper lip and roof of the mouth – unlike her twin sister, Harriet, whose face was normal.

But Matilda, who endured years of reconstructive surgery starting at just nine weeks old with a lip repair, was shocked by  the things she was told when, a fundraiser for Smile Train, a charity providing corrective surgery for children with the condition,  she went to Ethiopia last month.

Matilda on a charity walk in Italy (Collect/PA Real Life)

Living in Brixton, south west London, with her chef husband, Neil Campbell, 33, she said:  “One girl told me how she couldn’t go to school as other children used to throw rocks at her for being different.

“I felt it was hard enough for me growing up with a cleft palate, but for people in developing countries it is so much harder.

“Saying that though, I had expected a lot of tears and anger, but I was amazed by how happy the people I met were, and grateful for the money Smile Train had raised to help them have the surgery they need.”

Matilda in Ethiopia (Collect/PA Real Life)

She added: “Having had the same thing myself, I know that surgery can open a new chapter in your life.”

Matilda, who has had  12 operations over 21 years, including bone grafts from her hip, to correct the spilt in her lip and the roof of her mouth, describes herself as “independent and strong-willed.”

While she never allowed her disfigurement to hold  her back, but was delighted when an operation at 18 to bring her upper jaw forward by 11mm dramatically improved her speech, which had previously been impaired by her underbite.

Matilda and her mum in Ethiopia (Collect/PA Real Life)

“That operation gave me such a confidence boost, as before I had really struggled to speak loudly and clearly,” said Matilda.

“Looking back on old footage afterwards, I really wondered how anyone ever understood what I was saying to them, as I was so lispy and nasally.

“But it gave me the impetus to speak out more and talk about the condition.”

Matilda before her bone graft (Collect/PA Real Life)

Now campaigning for greater awareness around cleft palates and lips, as well as fundraising for treatment services in developing countries, Matilda explained how the condition occurs when the structures that form the upper lip or palate fail to join together when a baby is developing in the womb.

To help her, she had a lip repair at nine weeks, followed by palate surgery at six months to close the open wound on the palate – followed by numerous procedures over the ensuing years.

As a twin, she said it was very confusing for her as a youngster, having to make regular trips to see the doctor while her sister stayed at home.

Matilda before her bone graft (Collect/PA Real Life)

“It took me a while to understand why I was different from everybody else my age,” she said.

“I remember on my first day of primary school, the headteacher taking me around all the classrooms and introducing me to the pupils saying, ‘This is Matilda everyone, and she has a cleft palate.’

“It was an attempt to try and normalise it, but it had the total opposite effect. I was absolutely mortified and my parents were fuming.”

Matilda before her bone graft (Collect/PA Real Life)

Matilda, who had her first bone graft aged 11,  in which bone from her hip was implanted in the gap in the roof of her mouth, recalled her condition affecting more than just her speech in her early years.

She said: “I used to have food coming through my nose when I ate because of the hole in my palate, but the bone graft pretty much sorted that.

“I still had real problems talking, though. I went to a big school in Edinburgh and I would often have to repeat myself five times to be heard.”

Matilda and her mum in Ethiopia (Collect/PA Real Life)

She continued: “I’d see my friends going up on stage for school theatre performances and I knew that I just couldn’t do that.”

But, coming from a large, talkative family of seven, Matilda never allowed her condition to hold her back and always had a wide circle of friends – meeting Neil through some pals when she was 16.

“I always like to say that Neil met me ‘before’, as in before I had the second bone graft when I was 18 that let me talk properly.”

Matilda is an ambassador for Smile Train (Collect/PA Real Life)

She continued: “He confessed his love for me then, but it wasn’t for another couple of years until we finally got together, after I’d had the operation and was a lot more confident in myself.

“It sounds really cheesy, but you have to love yourself before you can love someone else, and that was definitely the case with Neil and I.”

Becoming a couple after Matilda left school, they then moved to London together and she pursued her dream of becoming a make-up artist, having her final ever operation aged 21, a rhinoplasty to open up one of her nostrils.

Matilda and her mum visited hospitals in Ethiopia (Collect/PA Real Life)

Then, three years ago, she became involved with Smile Train, after hosting a make-up masterclass for people born with cleft lips and palates, which led to her raising £1,000 in October 2018, during a sponsored walk in Italy for the charity.

The money paid for 10 cleft palate operations in Ethiopia – prompting Matilda’s trip there, to go and see the work that she had helped to fund.

During the two week visit, which she made with her mum Sarah, 62, she visited hospitals, speaking to the people who had benefited and hoped to benefit from the charity’s work.

Matilda and her dad raised £1,000 for the charity (Collect/PA Real Life)

“Going out there was brilliant,” she said. “It was lovely meeting people who had been through or were about to go through something similar to what I had experienced.

“Living with this condition can be tough and, as my parents always taught me, you have to be proud of who you are.

“But we need to talk about it as much as possible to help people understand what it means to live with a cleft palate – so people who do suffer with it won’t feel so alone.”

For information, visit www.smiletrain.org