AUGUSTA — In an exam room in the pediatric surgery clinic at Children’s Hospital of Georgia, Dr. Jack Yu and Alyssa Harden look through a sleeve of photographs taken at various stages of her life.
At first glance, it might appear the two are getting to know one another. But Harden, who was born with a cleft palate, has been Yu’s patient at the CHOG Craniofacial Center since she was 6 months old.
She’s had mouth surgery, a tonsillectomy, tubes placed in her ears and several rounds of dental work over her 19 years. Her most recent experience was in January, when her jaw was surgically broken and repositioned.
“Looking back on all of it, I’m glad it’s almost over. I have had miraculous results,” Harden said. “Dr. Yu and the center have helped me overcome so much.”
“The goal is to return patients to a state of anonymity,” said Yu, director of the center and chief of pediatric plastic surgery at CHOG, “so that when they go to the movie or the ball game, people notice them, but they are no longer staring because the person looks different. I think that’s very important.”
Yu was recruited to the Medical College of Georgia at Georgia Regents University to start the Craniofacial Center in 1994 — the same year Harden had her first surgery.
The center, one of only two in Georgia, was recently reaccredited by the Commission on Approval of Teams for the American Cleft Palate-Craniofacial Association and the Cleft Palate Foundation for meeting the peer-reviewed established standards in patient care and quality.
The Center for Craniofacial Disorders at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta is the other in-state provider accredited by the same organization.
Centers reapply for approval every five years.
“This is an external validation of the effort and commitment we make to our patients to be the best we can be for them,” Yu said. “Patients should feel confident that we are skilled in the appropriate techniques, and that we take their care very seriously.”
Children born with clefts or other craniofacial conditions often face multiple, complex health problems. Experience has shown that their needs can best be managed by an interdisciplinary team of specialists, which, depending on the child, may include:
A plastic surgeon, oral/maxillofacial surgeon, craniofacial surgeon, or neurosurgeon
An audiologist to assess hearing
A pediatric dentist or other dental specialist, such as a prosthodontist, to make any necessary prosthetic devices for the mouth
An orthodontist to straighten the teeth and align the jaws
A geneticist who screens patients for craniofacial syndromes and helps parents and adult patients understand the chances of having more children with these conditions
A nurse who helps with feeding problems and provides ongoing supervision of the child’s health
An otolaryngologist (ear-nose-throat doctor)
A pediatrician to monitor overall health and development
A psychologist or other behavioral health specialist to support the patient and family
A speech-language pathologist to assess speech and feeding problems
Because most patients require years of specialized treatment through the center, Yu has watched many of them grow from babies to young adults, something he describes as very satisfying.
“We all have different reasons to get out of bed and go to work in the morning. For me, this is it,” he said. “I really enjoy helping our patients and taking care of them through the years.”
The years weren’t always easy for Harden, especially around her middle-school days.
“It was hard a lot — I mean, looking around and realizing I was different,” said the Hephzibah High School senior. “But I wouldn’t change it for the world. I have never looked at myself in the mirror and thought I was something hideous. Instead, I thought, ‘I am strong and someone fearfully and wonderfully made by God.’ ”
Harden plans to attend The Crown College of the Bible in the fall as she works toward becoming a counselor to children with special needs.
“There’s a reason God made me this way, and I want to use it to bring Him glory,” she said. “I think seeing me will help these kids realize that I understand what it’s like to be different.”