STONY BROOK, Suffolk County (WABC) -- A teenage girl whose life was transformed by surgeons on Long Island will be returning home to Kenya after an extended stay in the US due to the pandemic.
Saline Atieno had developed a dangerous and facially disfiguring bacterial necrosis called "Noma" as a child.
Leon Klempner, DDS, a retired orthodontist, Stony Brook Dental Medicine professor, was first aware of Saline in 2010 on an outreach medical trip. Through his charity, the Smile Rescue Fund for Kids, he brought her to the United States in 2013.
At the time, 13-year-old Atieno was described back then as a shy little girl who did not speak English.
Dr. Klempner and Alexander Dagum, MD, Chief of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery, and their Stony Brook colleagues set a plan to reconstruct her face and mouth to improve her functions and look.
"This bacteria attacks the skin, it affected her breathing if she ate something food would spill out," Klempner said.
Ten surgeries and more than a year later, Saline's life transformed and she returned to Kenya in 2014.
"Smile Rescue Fund saved my life," Atieno said.
But, in the coming years, Saline developed additional recurring infections and scarring due the results of Noma and subsequent healing.
"There were some subsequent issues with recurring infections in her cheek," Klempner said.
Dr. Klempner arranged for Saline to return to Long Island in 2019.
From February 2019 to late January 2020, Dr. Dagum performed five more reconstructive procedures to reduce the risk of future infections and scaring around her lips, face and forehead, and removed a developing cyst from her cheek.
Then, the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Saline had to stay on Long Island with her host family, the Tame family, as travel was not permitted back to Kenya.
Because of this extended stay over the past year-plus, Saline's life transformed in many other ways.
She took the added time to enjoy her adopted home of Long Island more, perfected her English skills, and had the opportunity to have helpful medical follow-up and guidance from her Stony Brook clinical care team.
Atieno has been attending Newfield High School in Selden where she made a lot of friends.
"She's touched a lot of people's lives," Tame said.
She is now described by her caregivers as a smart and funny young woman.
"She's family. She's been involved in every holiday every thing that you can think of," Kerri Tame said.
Dr. Klempner was also able to coordinate pre-surgical orthodontic care to enable Dr. Dagum to reconstruct her jaw, along with Stony Brook Dental Medicine's Dr. Christine Valestrand, who provided prosthodontic care and created a maxillary overlay partial denture for Saline to restore esthetics and function to her teeth and mouth.
Saline will be able to maintain this dental prosthesis in Kenya despite its limited dental care options.
The pandemic has proved to give Saline added time to heal, adjust, and see her future. Now Saline returns home to Kenya on Sunday as a young woman who will turn 20 years old later this year.
She said she's sad to leave her host family and friends on Long Island, but is grateful to the doctors at Stony Brook Medicine.
"I'm thankful for all the good job that they gave for me on my face and make me look beautiful," she said.
But that's not all. Smile Rescue Fund installed seven rain water filtration systems in Atieno's village, put in 200 solar lights for the houses and started a hot lunch program at the local school.
"Because we found out that villages were spending 50 percent of their income to buy kerosene so their kids could do their homework at night," Klempner said.
The Fund will continue to pay for Atieno's medical expenses, schooling and food. Atieno wants to be a hair stylist.
"She came beautiful on the inside. She came that way," Klempner said.
To learn more about Smile Rescue Fund for Kids or to donate to its mission, visit SmileRescueFund.org.