Compassionate students, faculty give babies Chance to Smile

San Antonio (July 18, 2007) – Medical and dental students at The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio have established an online registry at to support and connect families of children born with cleft deformities. Cleft lip and cleft palate are the most common facial birth defects, affecting 1 in every 600 to 700 children.

“We are asking families in San Antonio and South Texas to register with us so that we can develop a database of all the families who have been directly affected by a cleft problem,” said Masoud Saman, a member of the School of Medicine Class of 2009. “We also want to make educational programs available to families, health providers or anyone interested in participating.”

Early in pregnancy, a baby’s face is formed when the two sides of the face meld in the middle. Clefts are separations in the lips and the palate (or roof of the mouth) that occur when this fusion is incomplete. Lips and palates grow separately, which means children may be born with a cleft lip, cleft palate or both. These conditions may take as many as a dozen surgeries in early childhood to repair.

About 80 families from as far as India have sent contact information and brief biographical essays via e-mail to, Saman said. The information is kept solely for the purpose of connecting interested families and will not be used for any other purpose, he said.

“This Web site has been wholly conceived and developed by concerned students who are trying to do something to help families and children,” said the students’ faculty adviser, facial surgeon G. Richard Holt, M.D., professor in the department of otolaryngology – head and neck surgery. “It would be easy for these students not to get involved as they pay attention to their studies, but they have shown commitment and dedication that go well beyond the norm.”

Health Science Center faculty members care for children through The Center for Reconstructive Surgery housed at CHRISTUS Santa Rosa Children’s Hospital. “The center is dedicated to the needs of families of children with plastic surgical concerns, either due to birth anomalies or secondary to trauma or malignancy,” said the center director, Aaron C. Mason, M.D., assistant professor of plastic surgery and pediatrics at the Health Science Center.

“Children with clefts are cared for by a multidisciplinary team,” Dr. Mason said. “During infancy and childhood, various procedures are performed to restore aesthetic and functional integrity to the lip and/or palate. Not surprisingly, these children often need support in adjusting psychologically to the societal implications of their deformity and to time spent in the hospital for operative interventions.”

The majority of cleft and other craniofacial anomalies are correctable, he said. Following surgery and the recovery period, the team seeks close communication with primary pediatricians or family doctors to achieve proper continuity of care. Parents are enlisted as active partners in the treatment process. A number of specialists for speech, hearing and dental problems, and social and emotional concerns, provide close monitoring throughout childhood.

Chance to Smile is a non-profit organization founded to raise awareness of cleft lip and palate and reduce social stigma about these conditions. As funds become available, members will take international trips to care for the needy in developing nations, Saman said. These will be multidisciplinary, volunteer-run, medical mission programs to provide surgery free of charge.

Chance to Smile co-founder Parya Etebari, a dental student, works closely with Timothy Henson, D.M.D., assistant professor in the department of pediatric dentistry. Dr. Henson has pioneered the use of nasal alveolar molding, a technique in which the baby is fitted with a retainer-like molding that orthopedically reduces a cleft, enabling fewer and less-extensive surgeries. Some clefts can be repaired in as few as two surgeries.

“The number of children born with clefts is huge,” Saman said. “Children usually must endure four to 10 surgeries to repair it. It is difficult for every child and every family. That is why we must help.”

To learn more about Chance to Smile, call Saman at (469) 223-2888 or send comments or questions through the Web site (keyword: contact).

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The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio is the leading research institution in South Texas and one of the major health sciences universities in the world. With an operating budget of $536 million, the Health Science Center is the chief catalyst for the $14.3 billion biosciences and health care sector in San Antonio’s economy. The Health Science Center has had an estimated $35 billion impact on the region since inception and has expanded to six campuses in San Antonio, Laredo, Harlingen and Edinburg. More than 22,000 graduates (physicians, dentists, nurses, scientists and allied health professionals) serve in their fields, including many in Texas. Health Science Center faculty are international leaders in cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, aging, stroke prevention, kidney disease, orthopaedics, research imaging, transplant surgery, psychiatry and clinical neurosciences, pain management, genetics, nursing, allied health, dentistry and many other fields.

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