New York doctors reconstruct Kenyan child’s face after flesh-eating bacteria

A girl from a remote village in Africa has regained her confidence – and her smile – thanks to the charitable efforts of a group of doctors at Stony Brook University Hospital in Stony Brook, New York.

In 2010, Dr. Leon Klempner, an orthodontist on the cleft palate team at Stony Brook, heard about a young Kenyan girl in desperate need of help. When she was a young child, the girl, Saline Atieno, had been infected by a rare flesh-eating bacteria called Noma– leaving her face destroyed and making it difficult for her to speak, eat and even breathe.

Saline’s condition was too severe for doctors in Kenya to treat.

“Noma attacked her face, ate through her skin, through her upper jaw, destroyed her nose and destroyed her palate…That’s the medical part,” Klemnper told “The social part is she was basically a recluse, she had no friends, she didn’t go to school.”

Klempner had been on numerous mission trips with organizations like Operation Smile, a group that provides free surgeries to repair cleft palates or other facial deformities in children around the world.

“It’s extremely rewarding helping all of these kids, but on every mission I’ve gone on there’s always been one or two kids turned away because they are too severe to be able to treat and that’s always bothered me,” Klempner said.

Touched by Saline’s story, and the plight of countless other children he’d seen over the years, Klempner decided to set up an organization – the Smile Rescue Fund for Kids – dedicated to helping children with facial deformities deemed “untreatable.” His first patient would be Saline.

After two years of fundraising and navigating bureaucratic barriers, Saline, who spoke only a rare African dialect, arrived in the U.S. in 2012. She was shy and afraid, and unwilling to show her face in public or look people in the eye. With no birth certificate or medical records to go by, doctors estimated she was approximately 12 years old.

The reconstructive process
Over the next year, Saline would undergo 10 surgeries to begin to reconstruct her face.

“We had to reconstruct a nose, an upper lip and a palate – and that was one big cavity, one big hole,” Dr. Alexander Dagum, chief of the plastic and reconstructive surgery division at Stony Brook, told “…And there was no tissue around [the cavity] and the tissue at the periphery was very scarred and contracted.”

As a result, the doctors needed to devise a way to grow new tissue and bring blood flow back into Saline’s face.

“The process was mapped out over the course of a year and involved using tissue expanders, similar to what breast cancer patients have before reconstructive surgery, when they put a balloon in and fill it with saline and gradually expand it,” Klempner said. “She had one in her forehead and one on the side of her face and that grew extra tissue, and then Dr. Dagum was able to have enough tissue and blood supply to recreate a palate in her nose and close off her cheek.”

Initially, Saline’s deformity worsened, as the tissue expanders were slowly inflated, creating bulbous growths on the sides of her face. But gradually, doctors were able to deflate the expanders and use the newly-created skin to slowly reconstruct Saline’s missing facial features.

“Probably around the fourth or fifth surgery, you could start to see where everything was coming into place,” Dagum said.

Saline’s transformation
As Saline’s appearance began to improve, her doctors and host family noticed a marked improvement in both her health and self-esteem. Saline grew six inches over the course of the year, learned English – and stopped hiding her face from others.

“Here everyone is welcoming her, telling her she is beautiful, I think that all really played a part of getting her to come out of her shell,” Jennifer Crean, who hosted Saline in her home for three months, told

Physically, Saline is now able to breathe normally, speak more clearly and eat without spilling food and drink from her mouth. Furthermore, her risk for future infections has decreased significantly now that the open cavity in her face has been closed. Though she may need a few corrective procedures to minimize scarring in the future, doctors felt confident enough in her recovery to send her back home to Kenya on Saturday, after a year in the U.S.

As part of their mission, the Smile Rescue Fund for Kids has also been hard at work making improvements in Saline’s community in Africa– including adding seven water collection tanks to provide fresh drinking water for the town. Noma typically infects children without access to clean drinking water.

“We’ve also provided 170 solar lamps for villages to use at night…we’ve started a school in her community…provided 10 wheelchairs for kids who are physically handicapped in her community and tried to address a lot of issues that were the foundation of her disease to begin with,” Klempner said.

Upon her return, Saline will be enrolled in a private boarding school, where she’ll get an education and have a bed to sleep in, as well as three meals per day – all funded by the Smile Rescue Fund.

Now that Saline’s journey is coming to a close, the group is in the process of screening more children to bring to the U.S. for similar reconstructive surgeries. However, the physicians who treated her, and those in the community surrounding Stony Brook, will always have a special place in their heart for their first patient, Saline.

“I’m inspired, I believe [Saline’s] given everybody that’s been in contact with her a gift,” Klempner said. “And I know I voice this opinion not only for me, but everybody else I’ve spoken to, she’s touched our lives and exposed us to what exists elsewhere and instilled this sense of gratitude in those of us that have been involved with her. She’s been an inspiration to us and really a gift, she’s enriched our lives.”

Click to donate to the Smile Rescue Fund for Kids.