Eritrean Teen Healing After Facial Reconstruction in USA

Eritrean Teen Healing After Facial Reconstruction in USA

African teen healing after facial reconstruction at Anne Arundel Medical Center

 

By Tim Prudente | www.capitalgazette.com | August 13, 2015

 

Filmon Haile is constructing his new face.

 

Filmon Haile

 

He's building the shelf beneath his eyes. He's building the frame for his palate.

 

His tools are screws, plates and gears. And of his labor, he writes:

 

It is uncomfortable, but no pain … I don't know if it is because of the swelling, but in general there is a lot of difference … everything is moving forward.

 

He writes because he cannot yet speak, not after last month's surgery — but he can build.

 

Gently, gently, he turns the screws behind his ears. Gently, slowly, the titanium plates move bones in his face.

 

Each day, three movements travel the thickness of a credit card.

 

The architect is Dr. Edward Zebovitz, an Annapolis surgeon, who pledged more than a year ago to rebuild the face of the African teen, a student so painfully shy from a childhood deformity that he would hide his face beneath a black scarf.

 

 

I told them (my friends) that my surgery was successful, but they want my new look, my pic … I guess their expectation is that I already changed.

 

Instead, his new face will be built gradually, during the next eight days, maybe more.

 

And it wasn't until the morning of July 31 at Anne Arundel Medical Center, hours into the most ambitious surgery of Zebovitz's 20-year career that the doctor felt sure.

 

It would work.

 

Radiation had stunted Haile's face when he was a toddler. Doctors in Africa had found a tumor on his cheek and prescribed targeted chemotherapy. The cancer was disrupted, so was his growth.

 

He endured high school with the face of a boy: concave cheeks with paper-thin bones, a pinched mouth with only 13 teeth.

 

Would his bones and tissues recover from surgery? Lasting radiation damage appears as pale tissue.

 

"If I saw something I didn't like, I would have aborted," Zebovitz said.

 

He didn't know until hours into the procedure, when the surgeons cut open Haile's face to reveal the eye sockets and cheeks. The doctors needed profuse bleeding — bleeding proves healthy tissue.

 

"They were profuse," Zebovitz said. "We were going to be fine."

 

The surgery lasted 10 hours, the doctors snipping, cutting, sopping and drilling into the bones.

 

Haile awoke at 8 p.m. Two screws extended behind his ears, another from the gum line of his mouth.

 

Now, morning and night, he twists each screw to shape his new face.

 

The plates pull apart the cut bones, about 1 millimeter a day. Tissue regrows in the gap. And when finished, maybe next week, his cheeks and top jaw will have widened and moved forward about a half-inch.

 

Next month, he will turn 20 with the face of an adult.

 

Maybe in December, the plates will be removed and Haile might return home to Asmara, the capital city of Eritrea in the Horn of Africa. Then, the university.

 

In that city, more than a year ago, Haile met Zebovitz, the former chief of oral and maxillofacial (face) surgery at Anne Arundel Medical Center. Zebovitz formed a charity in the 1990s, Surgeons for Smiles. He travels to rural villages and foreign cities to repair cleft lips.

 

Haile's surgery proved too challenging to attempt in Africa. Zebovitz won permission from the State Department to bring Haile and his mother here. They arrived in March to stay with a refugee from Eritrea living in Bowie. Zebovitz performed the surgery for free and Anne Arundel Medical Center absorbed its own expenses.

 

That surgery, an apparent success, expands the possibility of Zebovitz's charity work.

 

"Now the systems are in place, if those special cases come up, there's an avenue for treatment," said the surgeon, with an office in Bowie and home in Annapolis. "The more we see, the more we learn — the better we do in the future."

 

News stories about the surgery spread online. And Haile, turning his screws each day, building his new face, unable to speak, reads the comments of encouragement.

 

I want to thank them with all my heart. God bless them.

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