Advance with MUSC Health

Maggie's Story - Through a Mother's Eyes

Advance With MUSC Health
April 04, 2023
Close-up of smiling young child on the beach.

By Gary Logan

Like Caitlin Townes, Jessica Stelter remembers the call like it was yesterday. At 18 weeks of her pregnancy, she had undergone fetal ultrasound at a Charleston OB/Gyn service, which identified the sex of her baby. Overjoyed she was going to have another girl and nothing to worry about, she was relieved until the call that came from the service that night. They saw signs of a cleft lip and palate. 

“I think finding out early in your pregnancy that the anticipation of it was the hardest part,” says Jessica. “It was upsetting and quickly spiraled into Internet searches revealing the worst-case scenarios.”

Also Like Caitlin, Jessica met with ENT-facial plastic and reconstructive surgeon Krishna Patel, M.D., Ph.D., who advised her to silence her search engines. Patel then showed her photos of other children with clefts she had treated and explained how the Cleft Lip and Palate team works collaboratively with parents as team members on each individual case.

“Dr. Patel said you have to look at your case, your child, your life, and not what other people are putting out there,” Jessica recalls. “She and the team were really good at telling me what to expect, things I could not have anticipated and how to advocate for myself. I felt I was ready to handle this situation.”

Before Maggie’s birth, speech language pathologist Melissa Montiel, MS, CCC-SLP, worked with Jessica on feeding, noting that she would not likely be able to breastfeed because of her palate. She was disappointed but not for long: “The first time I saw Maggie, everything went away—it was like nothing else mattered.”

Then came Maggie’s first surgery at 3 months to repair her lip, after mom and the team got her weight up to 10 lbs. to handle the anesthesia. “The hardest thing is handing your three-month old baby to a doctor to be put under anesthesia,” says Jessica.

And how long would the surgery take?

“Dr. Patel told me it’s going to take as long as it takes for it to be right,” says Jessica. “She updated me often throughout the surgery, which was so reassuring. We spent the night in the hospital with Maggie and were home the next day. Within two days her lip looked like nothing had happened.”

That outcome raised Jessica’s confidence in Maggie’s next operation, her palate surgery, at 10 months. Patel showed Jessica visuals of what she and the surgical team intended to do, and what the palate and her recovery would look like. This time Jessica would not allow anticipation to take over her faith and trust in Patel and the team.

“I never worried that Maggie was in the best hands she could be in,” says Jessica. “Dr. Patel is so caring and just puts me at such ease.”

Smiling young girl on the beach holding starfish.Following the surgery, Montiel continued to work with Maggie on feeding, noting that milk should no longer seep through the nose once tissues heal. Speech therapy continued as well. Today the now six-year old’s speech is perfect, says Jessica. She adds, “Maggie is sassy, smart, competitive and, at times, headstrong. She knows what she wants, including the two rescue dogs she adopted. She wants to be a veterinarian.”

Reflecting on her own experience as a mom, Jessica says perhaps the best advice she got early on from Patel was taking a breath rather than immediately diving deep into Internet searches: “You sit on it for a while and your brain goes to every possible thing that could happen and you search for every bit of information. You get to a point where it’s just too much.”

Jessica adds, “I had so much anxiety at times during the pregnancy, but everything is perfect with her, she is just amazing. Having gone through this and being on the other side of it now, it feels like such a blip on the radar.”