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Changing a Life

The hands of plastic surgeon Dr. Jack Quigley are reflected in the safety glasses of surgical first assist Joel Packard as they work together to repair a cleft lip in one of the operating rooms at Bernard Mev’s hospital in Port au Prince Haiti during a trip with the Northern Arizona Volunteer Medical Corps in December.

Cleft lip and cleft palate are openings or splits in the upper lip, the roof of the mouth (palate) or both, which occur when the tissues in an infant’s face and mouth don’t fuse properly during the second and third months of pregnancy. The condition can be very mild to very significant.

Cleft lip and cleft palate are two of the most common birth defects worldwide (1 in 500) and the fourth most common in the U.S. (1 in 800). According to the CDC, every year in the U.S. about 2,650 babies are born with a cleft palate and 4,440 babies are born with a cleft lip with or without a cleft palate.

Studies show that clefts occur:

  • More often in Asians, Latinos or Native Americans
  • In the U.S. it is most common in Native Americans and least common in African-Americans
  • Boys are more likely to have a cleft lip
  • Girls are more likely to have a cleft palate

Factors that may increase the likelihood a cleft lip and cleft palate, include:

  • Family history
  • Exposure to certain substances during pregnancy (tobacco, alcohol and certain medications)
  • Diabetes and/or obesity during pregnancy

Having a baby born with a cleft can be upsetting, but it can be corrected. Surgery can improve the ability to eat, speak and hear normally and achieve a typical facial appearance.

The early intervention is advantageous because healing times are fast, the infant’s memory of the recovery process is short or not at all, and the area is easily reconstructed. Also noteworthy is the fact that this early intervention is before any significant language development. If the surgery is performed after the age 3, speech skills may suffer.

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Surgeries typically are performed in this order:

  • Cleft lip repair – within the first 3 to 6 months of age
  • Cleft palate repair – by the age 1
  • Follow-up surgeries — between age 2 and late teen years.

The initial operation is performed in a hospital; the following surgeries may take place in a hospital or an outpatient surgery center like the Northern Arizona Surgery Center.

Treatment for a cleft lip and cleft palate may extend over several years and require several surgeries. Fortunately, most children affected by this condition experience significant improvement in their appearance, quality of life and ability to eat, breathe and talk. 

Jack Quigley, MD, and his family have lived in Flagstaff for nearly 30 years. Nearly every year, Dr. Quigley joins other surgeons and healthcare professionals as they journey outside the U.S. to perform life-saving and life-changing surgical interventions on children and adults. In 1991, Dr. Quigley and Steven Lex, MD, co-founded Plastic Surgeons of Northern Arizona in Flagstaff. For more information, visit PSNA.net or call 774-2300.

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Is there a health topic you would like to know more about? Contact Starla S. Collins, health writer, life & success coach and public relations expert, at StarlaSCollins@gmail.com.

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