Fernande Romelus flinched when photos of her daughter flashed on a giant screen.
She blinked away tears and peered into 8-year-old Neissa Azor’s face, as if to make sure the massive tumor that had protruded from her little mouth was really gone.
It is, thanks to a chance encounter in their home country of Haiti — and a team of doctors, surgeons and nurses at Baptist Hospital of Miami, who performed a life-saving surgery for free.
Wearing white ribbons in her pigtails, Neissa returned to the hospital Thursday so doctors could describe her incredible case. A day after being released, she smiled for the dozens of people who came together to care for her.
“Thank you so much,” she said. “God bless you.”
Neissa was a 3-year-old girl in Port-au-Prince when her mother first noticed something was wrong. A little bump had appeared on the right side of her face shortly after the devastating earthquake of 2010. It never stopped growing.
Eventually, the tumor took over Neissa’s face until it hung out of her mouth, stretching her eye and nose, and dislocating her teeth.
She lived off soft foods, especially peanut butter sandwiches. Neissa stopped going to school about a year ago, and the neighborhood children who once came to play were ordered by their parents to stay away.
“It really hurt her and she couldn’t understand why,” a translator for Romelus said.
Sometimes, her mother said, the tumor hurt Neissa and it bled. What they didn’t know: the rapidly growing mass would eventually threaten her ability to breathe.
In February, a chance encounter saved Neissa’s life.
Elaine Lewis was 59 when she recently went back to school to learn how to be a surgical technician. The California resident wanted to do mission work and had heard there was a need for help in operating rooms.
Lewis’ training landed her a position at a hospital in Haiti.
On the way into to work one day, Lewis walked past Neissa and her mother sitting on a bench outside the hospital.
“I smiled and tried not to stare,” she said. “But God said, ‘Go back.’”
Lewis asked Romelus if she wanted help getting treatment for her daughter. Romelus said yes, setting Lewis off on a global search to find someone who could care for the little girl. But her case was so medically complex that Lewis looked for months without luck.
“I wanted to give up multiple times ... but I couldn’t put it to rest,” Lewis said. “I think it was my Christian faith to comfort the hopeless.”
Finally, a connection in Australia recommended Calvin Babcock. Babcock is a Miami real estate developer and Baptist board chairman who co-founded Living Hope Haiti Christian Mission. The nonprofit sends volunteer surgeons to the country, focusing primarily on the St. Michel area of Northern Haiti.
Lewis said Babcock, who has spent years in Haiti helping to build schools, medical clinics and an orphanage, did not hesitate to take on the case.
“It was fast-tracked,” she said.
Months of waiting turned into a sprint to secure visas, assemble a medical team and buy plane tickets to Miami.
At Baptist, doctors made scans and models to understand where the tumor was and how best to remove it. There was much to consider, like how to keep Neissa breathing and figuring out where blood vessels were.
“We were all a little taken aback by the size of the lesion,” said Dr. Joseph McCain, an oral and maxillofacial surgeon who helped coordinate Neissa’s care.
Soon the surgery took on a new urgency. Just weeks after Baptist doctors took on Neissa’s case, the tumor doubled in size and the little girl began to have trouble breathing at night.
“Neissa started to have a rapid acceleration of the growth of the tumor,” McCain said. “We were all quite concerned about that.”
The surgery date was pushed up. Neissa’s first surgery was on Sept. 24 for the tumor removal, followed by reconstructive surgery on Sept. 30.
It took a medical team about 12 hours to saw and chisel the tumor away, reconstruct her jaw out of rib bone and skin from the leg, and close up the incisions. Seventeen Baptist doctors were involved with her care, along with nurses and many others.
Neissa remained sedated the next day to let the pain from intensive surgery fade away. The spindly girl woke up in good spirits, and with a new-found taste for sweets. Lewis said she recently wolfed down most of a chocolate cake before anyone noticed.
Neissa now bears a pink scar running down her nose from her eyebrow to her lip, and across her cheek just below her eye. Her caretakers gently remind her to close her gaping mouth, which is still a bit stretched from the tumor.
Doctors are waiting for results to confirm the tumor was not cancerous. More surgeries await Neissa: She needs dental implants and jaw reconstruction.
Even then, her medical journey will not be over. Neissa will need constant monitoring to make sure the aggressive tumor does not regrow.
“We’re set up to monitor her going forward — as long as it takes,” McCain said.
Doctors expect Neissa to get well enough to return to Haiti soon, where her father and younger sister are waiting. Neissa, who loves the color pink and Barbie dolls, said she is looking forward to going back to school. She has plenty of studying ahead of her. A translator relayed:
“She’s going to be a maxillofacial surgeon, so she can give back.”