Doctors, nurses, and anesthesiologists came in to work Saturday morning, on their day off, with one mission in mind: To give 11 children a reason to smile, without leaving their parents a fat bill to frown about.
Baptist Children’s Hospital held its annual “Day of Smiles” Saturday, where hospital staff donated their time to perform free cosmetic surgeries for South Florida children. The surgeries ranged from rebuilding an ear to fixing cleft lips.
For many, it was the continuation of a long relationship between surgeon and patient, staff and family.
Mariya Klymenko, 17, lay in the pre-operating room with about a half-dozen other children waiting for her latest surgery, this one to reduce the appearance of the scars across her face from multiple skin grafts.
At six months old, Mariya’s face and shoulders were badly burned in a steam accident when she and her mother, Nataliya Klymenko, still lived in Ukraine. Since that incident, she has undergone 22 surgeries to graft skin from other parts of her body to her face and upper body.
Her surgeon, Dr. John Cassel, spoke of her resilience and noted that Klymenko is an honors student at the School for Advanced Studies at Miami Dade College.
“She’ll finish college the same time she finishes high school,” he said proudly.
“I’m going to try to finish college and high school together,” Mariya corrected him. “And then go to veterinary school.”
The first Day of Smiles was the brainchild of Dr. Joel Levin of Baptist Hospital.
A plastic surgeon by training, Levin served as a trauma surgeon in the Vietnam War, where he also performed cleft lip corrections for children when he wasn’t tending to wounded soldiers.
Years later, he became involved with the national organization Operation Smile, which does free cleft lip and cleft palate surgeries for children around the world.
One of the youngest patients on this Day of Smiles was Katyana Guzman, 7, who was born without a right ear, a condition known as microtia that affects only 1 in every 3,000 births, explained Dr. John Salomon.
Saturday’s surgery for Guzman would hopefully be the last of three. Salomon aimed to reconstruct the outer part of the ear, which, because of its complex three-dimensional structure, was much more difficult than working on the ear canal, he said.
Katyana’s mother, Isabel Maldonado, said that although her daughter was quiet now, she had been very excited about her final surgery.
“She’s been counting down the days,” Maldonado said as the young girl gingerly played with a stuffed animal.
Her condition “was worrying for me because kids — they can be angels, but they can be very, very cruel. And I didn’t want her to go through that.”
But, like the Klymenkos and the rest of the families waiting for surgery, she didn’t think there was anything she could do about it. Maldonado was a single mother working as a waitress and the cosmetic surgery her daughter needed was prohibitively expensive.
It wasn’t until a nurse at Glenn Archer Elementary School told her about the program at Baptist Children’s Hospital that she considered the surgery within her reach.
“It was like a happy green light,” Maldonado said of the moment she realized Katyana did not need to go through her childhood worrying about her classmates making fun of her.
Once the children are accepted into the program, they are given the same care as any other patient.
In the operating room, Mariya Klymenko was prepped for surgery by anesthesiologists and nurses. The only deviation was their brief conversation about how to insert the anesthesia tube down her throat without hurting the scar tissue that had accumulated in her trachea due to the accident.
Then Cassel began his work, using what looked like a miniature electric sander to wear down the scars that had formed between patches of grafted skin on her face.
“There is no way to repay you for what you have done,” her mother said as she held on to Cassel’s arm in the final moments before surgery.
Cassel sidestepped the compliment with the grace of someone who has heard the words many times before: “She’s enriched my own life, too.”