A Life Transformed: Melisa’s Story – LEAP’s Mission on September 11, 2001

Melisa was a toddler when she fell into the open flames of a fire her family used for cooking. The next years of her childhood were defined by a constant struggle to overcome the severe burns she had sustained. Her chin was fused to her chest – all of her neck skin in the front was gone, replaced by a thick band of unrelenting scar tissue. Melisa could not lift her head, look up, or even close her mouth to stop from drooling. Her mother’s heart was broken.

We first met Melisa at the military hospital in the Dominican Republic in the year 2000. LEAP began its missions in the DR in 1991, and as is always the case, we returned year after year to follow up on previous patients and take care of new patients. Deep relationships were formed, aided by Dr. Luis Cuello and his Dominican nonprofit, Corazones Unidos, which has helped thousands of Dominican infants and children born with congenital heart abnormalities and other problems. LEAP was invited to the Palacio Nacional on 2 different occasions and received personal thanks from 2 Dominican presidents. In the year 2000, LEAP was invited to one of the leading military hospitals of the Dominican Republic, and Melisa was presented as one of the patients.

We took Melisa to the operating room to explore her condition and see if there was anything we could do. Her neck and airway were so distorted that a breathing tube could not even be placed. After she awoke in the recovery room, her mother explained to her that nothing could be done. A few sentences in Spanish came from Melisa, basically thanking the doctors and nurses and apologizing for any difficulties she had caused. We knew then what we needed to do and began preparing for the next year.

We were assured we could get access to a microscope to perform a microvascular transfer of tissue from her back to her neck – the only thing that could overcome the large amount of missing tissue and give her normal movement in her neck. Our anesthesiologists began working on securing a pediatric endoscope that would allow safe placement of a breathing tube for the surgery. Drs. Jeff Kenkel and Larry Hollier, two of the brightest young talents in plastic surgery, began securing the instrumentation and suture needed for the complicated surgery and would lead the surgery.

In 2001, we returned to the DR and scheduled Melisa as our first surgical patient. We knew it would take all of our team and full concentration on her case. Drs. Jim Rothschiller and Bruce Fitzgerald, the team’s anesthesiologists, spent the first hour and a half navigating the difficult situation of inserting the breathing tube. With the aid of the pediatric endoscope, it was accomplished, and we could begin the estimated 8 to 10 hour surgery. Tension was palpable. At that precise moment, the general burst into the room in full military dress to inform us that a commercial airliner had flown into one of the Twin Towers. As the moments unfolded, the other tower was hit, and it was clear that these were terrorist attacks. We were separated from our families and our homes. The general explained to Robbie Jackson, our Missions Director, that airspace was going to be closed in the next hour, but he could get our team to Miami on a military plane if we left immediately. After prayer and discussion, the team voted unanimously to stay and complete Melisa’s surgery.

The remainder of the mission was emotionally difficult, but we were all lifted up by Melisa’s successful surgery and changed life. It was a nightmare flying back into the Miami airport upon our return, and we finally had to abandon any hopes of getting from Miami to Dallas. We rented vans and drove to Ft. Lauderdale at 4:00 am where the next day we were able to catch a Southwest flight to Dallas. If there was anyone other than our team on that flight, there were not many as our country and airlines still in shock from the recent events.

Dr. Rothschiller and LEAP Founder Dr. Craig Hobar returned 3 weeks later to check on Melisa and discharge her from the hospital. Head lifted high, she smiled widely and went home to live the life her mother had dreamed of since the accident.

Melisa and Dr. Jim Rothschiller

Combining immense talent, extreme dedication, and compassion for helping others, it wouldn’t have been hard to predict that the futures would be bright for Drs. Kenkel and Hollier, but it’s amazing to see how that has been fulfilled. Dr. Kenkel is currently Chairman of the Department of Plastic Surgery at UT Southwestern, one of the top-ranked plastic surgery training programs in the world. Dr. Hollier is Chief of Plastic Surgery at Baylor College of Medicine and Surgeon-in-Chief of Texas Children’s Hospital, one of the leading pediatric hospitals in the world. It is rare for a plastic surgeon to rise to the chief of surgery over all divisions of surgery. Dr. Hollier is also Chairman of the Medical Advisory Board for SmileTrain, the largest charitable cleft organization in the world.

Melisa’s case was probably one of the first microvascular tissue transfers done on a mission trip in that part of the world. It is another reason we will never forget Sept. 11, and we celebrate, not the surgery, but the life transformed. We will always remember that there are different ways to try and change the world – we choose to share the love of Christ through surgical transformation.