Once consigned to an extraordinary divine intervention, the term "miracle" is often used today for anything out of the ordinary. But even if the usage has become a little worn, there are things that, though not of supernatural origin, may still deserve the description. In that regard, today's surgical techniques to correct lip or palate clefts and the impact they can have on lives is well-nigh miraculous.
Before the 1950s, though, there was little that could be done to correct these kinds of birth defects. That all changed, though, with a "bolt from the blue" discovery by a military doctor over a half century ago. During Cleft & Craniofacial Awareness & Prevention Month this July, we recognize that doctor's breakthrough insight and the vast progress since then in cleft reconstruction surgery.
Affecting more than 4,000 babies each year, clefts develop during early pregnancy as portions of the face, typically the lips or extending into the palate, don't completely unite with each other. As a result, gaps (clefts) occur where the tissues should be uniform, forming on one side of the face or both.
Clefts can have a harmful effect on a baby's ability to feed or even breathe, and they can interfere with speech development as the child gets older. But what may cause the most emotional pain is the alteration of a person's normal appearance, which may inhibit their ability to socially interact with others.
But a child today with a lip or palate cleft can reclaim a more normal appearance through a series of surgical repairs. The genesis for this began when a U.S. Naval surgeon named Ralph Millard stationed in Korea in 1950 noticed something when studying photographs of his cleft patients. He realized there was no missing tissue with a cleft—all the "parts" were still there and only needed to be "rearranged" surgically.
Today's surgeons do just that, having built modern cleft correction on Dr. Millard's original procedures. And although it involves multiple procedures and often a team of surgeons, dentists and orthodontists, the end result is life-changing.
As amazing as these results may be, cleft correction is a process that can take years, taxing the stamina of both patients and their families. But with ample support, a child with a cleft now has a chance to enter adulthood with a normal smile and appearance. If anything deserves the title "miracle," surely cleft reconstruction surgery does.
If you would like more information about cleft treatment and reconstruction, please contact us or schedule a consultation. To learn more, read the Dear Doctor magazine article “Cleft Lip & Cleft Palate.”
One in 700 babies are born each year with a cleft lip, a cleft palate or both. Besides its devastating emotional and social impact, this common birth defect can also jeopardize a child's long-term health. Fortunately, incredible progress has occurred in the last half century repairing cleft defects. Today's children with these birth defects often enter adulthood with a normal appearance and better overall health.
A cleft is a gap in the mouth or face that typically forms during early pregnancy. It often affects the upper lip, the soft and hard palates, the nose or (rarely) the cheek and eye areas. Clefts can form in one or more structures, on one side of the face or on both. Why they form isn't fully understood, but they seem connected to a mother's vitamin deficiencies or to mother-fetus exposure to toxic substances or infections.
Before the 1950s there was little that could be done to repair clefts. That changed with a monumental discovery by Dr. Ralph Millard, a U.S. Navy surgeon stationed in Korea: Reviewing cleft photos, Dr. Millard realized the “missing” tissue wasn't missing—only misplaced. He developed the first technique to utilize this misplaced tissue to repair the cleft.
Today, skilled surgical teams have improved on Dr. Millard's efforts to not only repair the clefts but also restore balance and symmetry to the face. These teams are composed of various oral and dental specialties, including general dentists who care for the patient's teeth and prevent disease during the long repair process.
Cleft repairs are usually done in stages, beginning with initial lip repair around 3-6 months of age and, if necessary, palate repair around 6-12 months. Depending on the nature and degree of the cleft, subsequent surgeries might be needed throughout childhood to “polish” the original repairs, as well as cosmetic dental work like implants, crowns or bridgework.
In addition to the surgical team's skill and artistry, cleft repair also requires courage, strength and perseverance from patients and their parents, and support from extended family and friends. The end result, though, can be truly amazing and well worth the challenging road to get there.
If you would like more information on repairing cleft birth defects, please contact us or schedule an appointment for a consultation. You can also learn more about this topic by reading the Dear Doctor magazine article “Cleft Lip & Cleft Palate.”