San Antonio (Aug. 15, 2007) – Although she’s only three months old, Savannah Fisher has traveled thousands of miles and spent numerous hours on airplanes. “She’s on the quest for a new smile,” says her mom, Karin. Savannah was born with facial birth defects – a cleft lip and cleft palate.
The two have been flying once a week from Los Angeles, Calif., to San Antonio, Texas, since Savannah was just 2 weeks old. When their plane lands in San Antonio, Karin brings Savannah to see Timothy Henson, D.M.D., assistant professor in the department of pediatric dentistry at The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio.
Using a specialized technique called nasal alveolar molding, Dr. Henson is reshaping Savannah’s mouth millimeter by millimeter. “Normally, children can require about 12 surgeries between birth and age 18 to correct cleft lips and cleft palates,” Dr. Henson said. “Using this method, we can have the cleft repaired in about two surgeries.”
Dr. Henson is one of only a handful of physicians in the country and the only doctor in South Texas who can assist in the repair of cleft lips and cleft palates by using the nasal alveolar molding technique.
Cleft lip and cleft palate are the most common facial birth defects, occurring in approximately one in every 800 live births. In the early stages of pregnancy, a baby’s face is formed when the sides of the face fuse together in the middle. Sometimes lips and jaws do not completely grow together as they normally should, leaving a hole in the baby’s face. The resulting separation in the lip and the roof of the mouth, or palate, is called a cleft. Because lips and palates form separately, it is possible for babies to have either a cleft lip or cleft palate,
As soon as five days after birth, babies are fitted with a custom-made device (much like a retainer) that fits into the mouth and into the nose. It is attached to the baby’s face with rubber bands and tape. “The device orthopedically moves the gums around before lip closure surgery.
That surgery occurs when the baby is about 14 weeks old. Closing the cleft at that time is important because we want the surgeon to be able to sew the lips and gums together in the same surgery,” Dr. Henson said. In addition to closing the cleft, the device molds the cartilage of the nose. “Usually babies with cleft lips and palates have a flat, deformed nose,” Dr. Henson said. “Without the molding, it could take six, eight or more plastic surgeries over the child’s lifetime to fix the nose.”
Tiny patients travel from throughout San Antonio and Texas to see Dr. Henson. Sandy Enriquez of Carrizo Springs brings her 5-month-old-son, Simon, who was born with a unilateral cleft lip and palate. He’s been seeing Dr. Henson since he was 2 weeks old. “Dr. Henson is wonderful. He explains everything in detail and gives me the assurance I need,” Enriquez said.
After being treated by Dr. Henson for nearly four months, 7-month-old Skylar Preciado of San Antonio underwent a two-hour surgery in May to repair her cleft lip and palate. “She looks beautiful,” said her grandmother, Tommie Salinas. “You can’t tell that she had anything wrong with her. I think she gives hope to all the other moms who have babies born with this defect.”
Skylar’s mom, Suzanna Preciado, enjoys a weekly gathering of the mothers with babies with cleft deformities. They gather every Tuesday morning in the pediatric dental clinic at the Health Science Center waiting for their babies to be checked by Dr. Henson.
“We all get to know each other, talk and share experiences and advice,” Preciado said. “It’s like a support group that Dr. Henson has set up, so we all feel more comfortable and at ease about what we are experiencing. We all just want the best care for our children so they can have beautiful smiles and grow normally, and we feel like we’re getting that here.”
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.