Saline Atieno’s face was ravaged by a rare flesh-eating bacteria from childhood. The bacterial necrosis called Noma made it difficult for her to speak, eat and even breathe.
In 2010, Leon Klempner, an orthodontist and Stony Brook Dental Medicine associate professor, learned of Atieno’s plight while on an educational mission Nairobi.
In 2013, Klempner saw into it that a non-profit organisation- Smile Rescue Fund for Kids, took her to the United States where she underwent more than 10 surgeries at Stony Brook University Hospital. Atieno was lucky to survive because the disease has a 90 percent mortality rate.
“She was infected when she was about five, and she had already been born with a cleft lip and palate,” said Klempner, adding that Atieno was homebound because her friends in school were stigmatising him. “We decided that if we could bring her to Stony Brook she’d be a good teaching case for the residents and at the same time we could help her.”
A year later in 2014, the then 12-year-old Atieno returned to Kenya with a transformed face, a beautiful smile and a promising future.
Saline Atieno suffered recurring infections
Atieno, however, suffered recurring infections in her cheek and in 2019, she had to return to Stony Brook for follow-up procedures, which also included reconstructing her jaw. Doctors found the root cause of the recurring infections and successfully treated it.
“Between February 2019 and late January 2020, Dagum performed five additional reconstructive procedures to reduce the risk of future infections and scarring around her lips, face and forehead, and removed a developing cyst from her cheek,” reads a statement from Stony Brook University.
But it was during the course of this treatment that COVID-19 struck. She was forced to stay in America because of the international travel restrictions brought about by the global pandemic.
After more than a year living with a host family on Long Island- New York state, she started attending school at Newfield High.
Last month, Atieno, now 19, returned to Kenya, beautiful and confident. “I am thankful to the doctors for the good job,” she is quoted by ‘ABC7’ as saying.
“She wants to be a hairstylist and we feel we can provide her with a vocational skill that will hopefully enable her to be self-sufficient and support herself. Even though we’re sending her back, we’re still here to support her,” said Klempner.