Badly disfigured Kenyan girl gets a new face thanks to Stony Brook University doctors


Little Saline Atieno contracted a devastating bacteria that ate away at her face. In a Daily News web exclusive, meet the local doctors who reconstructed it for free.

Two Stony Brook Children’s Hospital doctors have given a young Kenyan girl a reason to smile.

After a 2010 humanitarian trip to Nairobi, dentist Leon Klempner and plastic surgeon Alexander Dagum returned to find an email from a charity director about a young girl, Saline Atieno, who was badly disfigured after contracting a rare but serious bacteria called noma. The disease ravaged the girl’s face, eating away at her palate, jaw and nose. The majority of children who contract noma die from it. The charity director asked if there was anything the doctors overseas could do, as her condition was so severe.

“There’s always a few children like Saline that get turned away because of the extent of their deformity,” said Klempner. “For me, this was the tipping point. She had no friends, wasn’t attending school, her father had died to AIDS, her older sister was pregnant, she lived in this remote village with no clean water — it was just a combination of things that pulled at your heartstrings.”

Klempner founded a charity, Smile Rescue Fund, to raise money for Saline to have the surgery in her homeland. But after two failed attempts, he arranged for Saline to be brought to Stony Brook.

“We felt we couldn’t leave her there,” Klempner said. He and his team performed the surgery for free.

Klempner and Jennifer Crean, who was to house Saline for part of her stay, picked up 12-year-old Saline from the airport and remember meeting a shy young girl who was ashamed of her appearance.

“Her face was hidden, she had a hat on her head, she was looking at the ground,” Crean said. She remained introverted during those first few months in America, but after some time with her first host family, “she started to come out of her shell,” she said.

The scheduled reconstructive surgeries were supposed to take about four months, but ended up taking a full year.

“We realized after the CAT scan and evaluation it was gonna require quite a few stages, a lot more needed to be done,” said Dagum. Because Saline’s tissues were very scarred and didn’t move easily, he and his team first “inserted balloons under her forehead to expand the tissues,” thus giving them enough tissue to start rebuilding the nose and palate. From there, they took grafts from the little girl’s ribs to reconstruct her nose, and used her lower lip to help create a new upper lip. Saline’s final surgery was a few days ago.

The transformation of the quiet young girl into a “boisterous” preteen has been incredible, Crean says.

“She’s just very happy, a typical 12-year-old child,” she said. She loves normal American pastimes like fawning over One Direction, going to the beach and watching hockey games. “We try to do as many things as possible to show her the American way,” she said. “She’s been fishing, she’s been skiing, ice skating. She very much adapted herself into our way of life easily.”

Now that she is on the road to recovery, Saline will return home to Kenya this Saturday to be reunited with her mother and older sister. Crean said she is sad to see her go, but Saline is returning home with a new lease on life thanks to the doctors who saved her.

“We saw her transform from a shy girl who would cover her face to a girl who plays and enjoys life,” Dagum said.

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