NYC Health + Hospitals/Jacobi surgeons help young woman smile

Vivian Wong, who was born with a cleft lip, now has full use of her jaw.
Photos courtesy Jacobi

Each year, between 15-20 children are born with cleft lips in the NYC Health + Hospitals system — three to five of those children are born at Jacobi Hospital.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in every 1,600 babies is born with a cleft lip and it is the second most common birth defect in the United States. A cleft lip is a condition, by birth, with the opening or split in the upper lip and roof of the mouth or both, which occurs when the facial features do not develop completely during the pregnancy.

Jacobi recently announced that nine years after her initial surgery at their facility, Vivian Wong, a patient born with a cleft lip, now has full use of her jaw.

“These surgeries really changed my lifestyle,” said the 16-year-old Wong, who attends high school in the Bronx. “I couldn’t eat, I had difficulty breathing, and these procedures resulted in a significant improvement in my life.”

As a child who was constantly growing, the treatment for this condition required Wong, of Flushing, to endure numerous surgeries. First, her cleft lip and cleft soft palate needed to be surgically closed. After this, her jaw needed to be realigned, which required a bone graft where bone was taken from her hip and placed into her jaw. Then, a surgery of her nasal passageway, done in conjunction with Jacobi’s Plastic Surgery Department, helped to improve her breathing.

Vivian Wong, 16, after a nine-year battle to correct a cleft lip.

“Children are still growing as are their faces,” said Dr. Timothy Levine, director of Jacobi’s Congenital Craniofacial Care Center. “So, for Vivian and all the children we treat, we need to wait until they have fully grown in order to undertake major surgery to reposition their jaws. Otherwise, we could compromise their ability to eat, speak or their appearance.”

Levine, who has been in the field since 2013, said focusing on cranial facial issues has always been important to him. All craniofacial doctors are certified orthodontists.

“The reason I wanted to be an orthodontist is to deal with the most complicated cases that require some type of treatment or surgery,” he said.

According to Levine, children born with a cleft lip don’t just have physical issues, but emotional ones as well. Knowing they don’t look like the average kid can be a heavy burden on their self-esteem, he said.

For Levine, 40, helping people like Wong transform their appearance is quite a rewarding experience. He has seen how much of a difference the surgeries have made in her life and countless others.

Craniofacial doctors first know a baby will be born with a cleft lip when viewing images in the mother’s womb. Once born, minor procedures can begin and like Wong, around age 7 or 8 more intense surgeries occur. Levine met Wong in 2012 when she was 8, and a year later she was having her first major surgery at Jacobi. From 2014-2020 she was constantly in treatment and underwent many procedures.

“I think she understood what she was going through,” Levine said. “She always had a very clear head about what she wanted to do. Now she’s a young woman and you probably wouldn’t even know she had surgery.”

Reach Jason Cohen at jcohen@schnepsmedia.com or (718) 260-4598. For more coverage, follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram @bronxtimes.

Vivian Wong

More from Around NYC