At just two years old, Elliot Kostelak is a very personable little guy.
He greets me at the door, offers his hand, and then shows me around the house where he lives with mom and dad and a 22-pound cat named Jabberwocky. His mother, Jessica, laughs as she tells me, “Elliot has never met a stranger.”
Despite the best pre-natal care and screenings, including a high-risk ultrasound, Jessica and her husband Mark didn’t know that Elliot would be born with a cleft lip and palate. Today, you can hardly tell.
Thanks to Dr. Hugo St. Hilaire and the Cleft and Craniofacial Team at Children’s Hospital of New Orleans, the Kostelaks left the hospital filled—like any new parents — with abundant joy and hope for the future.
Indeed, Jessica will tell you that she fell so in love with Elliot’s smile that when it came time to begin the process of cleft lip and cleft palate repair, a part of her didn’t want them to perform the surgery.
The Importance of a Team Approach
Jessica still has the ultrasound on her phone.
The image shows baby Elliot sucking on his fingers; and those little fingers are hiding the cleft.
Elliot thus arrived into the world with a surprise for his parents. There was a cleft and craniofacial team meeting that very same day, and the Kostelaks were introduced to Nurse Coordinator Mary Ellen Alexander, who continues to supervise Elliot’s care.
“She was very comforting,” Jessica recalls. “We didn’t know what to expect. We wouldn’t have known where to start.”
“Everyone came to us,” she says. “It was really well done. We didn’t have to seek out the best of best—the geneticist, the ENT, Dr. St. Hilaire—because they were already assembled.”
Mark smiles, adding, “After we talked to the cleft team we knew that we were in really good hands. It was incredible.
“All of the specialists we didn’t know we would need were right there for us.”
Cleft Lip and Cleft Palate Repair
The Kostelaks learned what to expect—and how to feed Elliot—and they had absolute confidence in Dr. St. Hilaire and his team before leaving the hospital that day.
“Dr. St. Hilaire talked like a real person, and to us like real people, both before and after the surgery. He understood our anxieties, was confident of success, and knew how to put us at ease.”
Three months after Elliot was born, he returned to Children’s Hospital of New Orleans for surgery on his lip.
Jessica felt like she (and Elliot) had the best of everything and that her team took all the care she could hope for:
“They went as far as to bring food for nursing moms, so you never have to leave the baby’s side,” Jessica remembers. “And they offer locked and secure rooms for nursing moms so you can pump discreetly and privately.”
At 10.5 months, when it was time to repair Elliot’s cleft palate, the ENT was on hand to insert Elliot’s ear tubs as part of a combined procedure. “That was great,” Mark recalls. “As a parent, the less time your baby spends under anesthesia the better.”
Restoring a Child’s Smile
Jessica is a teacher, knows how to ask good questions, and she has educated herself in every particular regarding Elliot’s special needs.
“You can’t prepare yourself as a new mom, never mind all of the extra things that go with being mother to a child born with cleft lip and palate,” she says.
Her advice to any new mom in the same situation: “Allow yourself to feel every emotion. Don’t act as though you aren’t scared, distressed, whatever. It is healthy to allow yourself to feel those things.”
It is also helpful to have access to a team you can trust: “You do get emotional,” Jessica says, “and Mary Ellen and the people at Children’s knew just how to handle it.”
Mark agrees: “Individually, we couldn’t have put together a better team.”
As for Elliot, he’s ready to go to the park. Time to say hello to the ducks.