St Thomas
12 April 2017

Three-Year-Old Girl Undergoes First Cleft Palate Repair On St. Thomas

After years searching for adequate treatment, a young girl from St. Thomas has become the first patient to undergo cleft palate repair in the US Virgin Islands. The Schneider Regional Medical Center announced the completion of a successful surgery on March 24, 2017, according to St. Thomas Source.

Young Patient Braves Cleft Surgery In US Virgin Islands

The patient, a three-year-old girl nicknamed “Angel,” is recovering in good condition. She is expected to be released from the hospital soon. Angel was diagnosed at birth with a cleft in the soft palate, along with a partial hard palate cleft. Both conditions are marked by a split or opening, which can be large or small, in the roof of the mouth. Like so many other young patients, Angel’s cleft palate led her to experience a number of associated issues, including eating, hearing and breathing problems. Her parents say she suffered from frequent infections.

Harbor In St Thomas

At first, Angel’s family thought they would have to travel abroad to find treatment for their child. Providing adequate medical care to residents of the US Virgin Islands has long been a challenge. In previous years, island residents were forced to journey far-and-wide for complex procedures usually classified under the rubric of “plastic surgery,” which includes cleft palate repairs but also extends to face lifts and nose jobs. To make matters more complex, many insurance companies continue to consider “plastic surgery” procedures as elective forms of surgery, which can make finding coverage hard.

Doctor Hopes To Bring Complex Procedures To Island Residents

Angel’s parents, who spoke to reporters after the surgery, say they consulted doctors in Miami and Houston, until the fortuitous arrival of an American doctor made cleft palate repair possible on St. Thomas for the first time. Dr. Eric Stelnicki, founding director of the Cleft and Craniofacial program at Florida’s Joe DiMaggio Children’s Hospital, performed the procedure.

A professor at the Cleveland Clinic, Dr. Stelnicki joined the staff at Virgin Islands Ear, Nose & Throat in January of 2017, splitting his time between offices on the islands of St. Thomas and St. Croix. His goal is to offer new treatment options, previously unavailable in the US Virgin Islands, to patients. Not only could Dr. Stelnicki help their child, Angel’s parents say the doctor was far more compassionate than physicians they had seen in the States. In Miami, the child’s mother told St. Thomas Source, “everything was very rushed and we didn’t feel like they really cared about our daughter.”

Dr. Stelnicki was different. “Being able to have this procedure done at home was a blessing,” says Angel’s mother. “The doctors here made us feel comfortable. They fully explained exactly what they were going to do and kept us informed throughout the procedure. Even Angel was able to understand what was going to happen and was at ease.”

Cleft Palate & Lip Pose Challenges For Young Children

Cleft palate and cleft lip (collectively known as “orofacial clefts”) are associated disorders that can be caused either by genetic factors or environmental exposures, including some prescription drugs taken by a mother. In the United States, orofacial clefts are the second most common form of congenital anomaly, behind only congenital heart defects in their frequency.

Cleft Palate Drawing

Rendering of a cleft palate, courtesy of the Centers for Disease Control.

Orofacial clefts can lead to a number of challenges. Infants with clefts often have difficulty feeding, because the opening in the palate makes it difficult to create the vacuum necessary to suck. As a child grows, the condition can have a wide range of effects, impacting breathing, speech and hearing. Likewise, differences in appearance can create problems at school, as other children respond inconsiderately to someone who looks different from themselves. Many children also struggle to cope with the demands of intensive medical treatments, including the series of corrective procedures most often conducted to resolve the condition’s complications.