Chapel Hill, N.C. — The care necessary for children born with cleft lip or palate is often extensive, requiring several surgeries and years of post-surgical care and support.
Between 1 in 500 to 700 children born in the United States have a cleft lip or palate, making it the most common facial or cranial abnormality present in infants. The Cranio-Facial Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill hospital recently received a national award for its work with these and other patients.
Katie Sams, a nurse at UNC, said her personal experience at the hospital pushed her to become a health-care professional.
"I came here and had my initial lip repaired at about 3 months of age," she said.
Like Sams, most cleft lip or palate patients have underdeveloped tissues in the mouth that don't fuse together and leave a gap.
As she grew up, Sams returned repeatedly to UNC where a team or surgeons, dentists, psychologists, speech pathologists and social workers met to plan a care strategy.
The center has proven to families that it is committed to long-term expert care, and it recently received the 2013 William Gies Award for Outstanding Achievement for Academic Dental Institutions.
"We will be able to follow these kids and see the development of them throughout their first 18 years, said Dr. Luiz Andre, a dental director at the center.
Jane Weintraub, dean of UNC's School of Dentistry, said the school has been providing similar care to patients in the area for 50 years.
Sams splits her time in the ENT clinic and Craniofacial Center, often meeting families during their baby's first surgery.
"When I tell them, 'I've been where you are, I know how you feel,' I've had parents cry," she said.
Amelia Drake, a physician at the center who helped Sams as a child, said Sams' connection with patients is important.
"They're touched," Drake said. "They seem to enjoy their interaction with her."
Representatives from the center will accept the Gies Award in Seattle this March.