KABUL, Afghanistan (Dec. 29, 2011) -- While medical care in Afghanistan is beginning to become more accessible to the Afghan people, many who live in rural areas are just recently learning about the latest medical services available to them and their families.

Such was the case with 13-year-old Rafeeullah, a young Afghan boy who has lived his entire life with a severe cleft palate and upper lip, which is a birth defect that occurs in approximately one out of every 700 births. The cleft affects the upper lip and the roof of the mouth causing a gap that forms when the tissue does not join before birth.

In developed countries, the defect is often identified early in newborns and can be corrected with surgery within the first few months of a child's life. However, in Afghanistan, like in many other countries with underdeveloped rural medical care, children born with this condition often times go untreated.

Rafeeullah's case "was the worst case of cleft palate and lip that we've ever encountered," said a coalition Special Operations Forces team member, who first heard about the boy's condition after a local physician brought Rafeeullah to coalition Special Operations Forces, or SOF, in the Ma'ruf district of southern Afghanistan's Kandahar province.

Rafeeullah's condition was so severe that his two front teeth were growing outside of his mouth and under his nose. As a baby, his condition made it extremely difficult for him to eat, as he would have been unable to properly create the necessary seal around his lips while feeding.

"We were surprised that the boy has lived to the age of 13," said a coalition SOF medic.

Shortly after meeting Rafeeullah, the SOF team began conducting research on international medical charities that specifically focus on cleft lip and palate reconstructive surgeries.

After conducting their research, the team discovered the CURE International Hospital of Kabul, which partners with the Smile Train, an established charity that provides free cleft surgery to children in developing countries, training for national surgeons in reconstructive surgery and counseling to the families of children with cleft lip and cleft palate conditions.

"The call to the CURE International headquarters seemed to work," said another SOF team member. "Based on the picture (of the boy's condition), the hospital's director estimated that the patient needed two surgeries, spaced several months apart, to correct the condition."

After receiving help from the coalition SOF team, Rafeeullah and his father sat down with a local doctor in Kandahar to discuss the treatment options, as well as what to expect in the coming months with the surgeries. Both Rafeeullah and his father expressed their excitement for the opportunity to have his condition corrected after so long.

Once everything was set-up and scheduled, Rafeeullah and his father departed their home village in Ma'ruf district for the Afghan capital of Kabul. There, the hospital not only performed the life-altering surgery, but also made sure that Rafeeullah's father had a place to stay during both the surgery and during the post-operation recovery.

"We spoke with the doctor following the surgery," said the SOF team member. "He is doing well, eating food, and acting like a normal kid."

"We are so happy and thankful for the surgery," said Rafeeullah's father, through a translator. "I can't put into words how thankful I am for (coalition SOF's) help. Rafeeullah no longer has to wear a scarf over his face to hide his condition."

Rafeeullah returned home to Kandahar with his father following the successful surgery. He will stay at home for the next few months prior to his next surgery which will complete the treatment for his condition.

For more information on the CURE International Hospital of Kabul, please visit their website at http://cure.org/hospitals/afghanistan.