By: Nicholas Howland
Emma Brockway is a hero. One look at her photos, from childhood through the present day, might make you assume the same, but we would both be wrong. It isn’t the cleft lip and palate transformation that makes Emma a hero. It isn’t even the nearly one dozen surgeries she has undergone, the pain she has endured, or the relentless torment of inevitable bullying. None of that is what makes Emma a hero, because none of that defines who she is.
Emma was born in a little village across the world. When she was ten days old, she was left at a train station, and luckily, was found and taken to an orphanage. At 12 months of age, Emma’s adoptive parents found her, with a severe cleft lip and palate, and adopted her. Her given name was Wen Zhan. Wen means “gentle”, and Zhan is translated to mean “war” or “warrior”. “Gentle Warrior” is a fitting name for a girl who has fought many battles throughout her life. Just months after her adoption, she was brought to Texas to begin a lifetime of surgeries.
Emma’s bilateral cleft lip was repaired by the team that was headed up by Dr. Steven Blackwell at Shriner’s Children’s Hospital in Galveston. From the outside, this may seem like the major fix for a child born with a cleft lip and palate. But this was just the tip of the iceberg. Most children with a defect similar to Emma’s undergo 8-12 surgeries from birth until adulthood. Emma was no different. After the lip repair, her palate was fixed shortly thereafter. She also later required bone grafting, reconstructive jaw surgery, fat grafting to her lip and scar, and finally, an open rhinoplasty to correct the effects of the cleft on her nasal structures.
Then there was the relentless bullying that Emma wouldn’t want you to know about. She dealt with most of it quietly, as to not upset her parents. At one point, the bullying turned into actual physical abuse. Emma’s mother wanted her to change schools, but it was Emma who pleaded that she could handle it. She looked at her and said, “Mom, if I run away now, I’ll run the rest of my life. I’m not doing that!” And she never did. “Warrior,” indeed.
So what is it that defines Emma, if not all of this? One more story, perhaps, holds the answer. On her 10thbirthday, Emma’s mother asked her what she would like to do for her special day. Emma asked to go to Kentucky Fried Chicken and ordered 3 dinners with all the fixings. Her mom thought she wanted to buy dinner for her family. But on the way home, Emma directed her mom to pull the car over. She got out and promptly took the dinners to several of the homeless men that they frequently passed on the way to school.
Emma has learned that through all of this, a support network is absolutely crucial. Her parents have been there every step of the way to ensure her success. Not all people with cleft lip and palate are so lucky. Emma started a support group called
Cleft Community that can be found at instagram@cleftcommunity.
And that is really who Emma is. That is what makes her a hero. It isn’t the triumph of overcoming a terrible birth defect over which she had no control (although that is certainly heroic), but Emma is and stands for love, courage, and compassion.