Throughout infancy and childhood, Elizabeth Alberti has been in and out of the hospital for a total of seven facial reconstruction surgeries to correct her cleft lip and palate. Her journey, in other words, has been anything but easy.
But it has inspired Elizabeth, now 11, to give hope to kids like her. This year, she has become an impressive fundraiser for Operation Smile, a global nonprofit that funds corrective surgeries for cleft affected children in underdeveloped countries.
When she first learned of Operation Smile, Elizabeth had a strong emotional reaction to the thought of kids being unable to afford the surgeries that had so profoundly changed her life. Her mother Heather recalls her daughter saying, “It's amazing how I have been pushing back at you about my upcoming surgery, but there are kids who are so desperate to get them that don't even have the option.”
This April, on her own accord, Elizabeth started a Facebook page to promote her Operation Smile team aptly named “Team E.” She created videos with her friends, siblings and cousins to encourage others to give. In less than two months, Team E raised enough money to pay for a whopping 44 surgeries, costing more than $10,000.
Throughout the fundraiser, Elizabeth was preparing for her seventh surgery scheduled for the summer. “It was the most incredible distraction for her,” Heather said. “It drew her attention from the stress and fear of her surgeries that she usually feels so strongly, and put it on kids who aren't as lucky to have great medical care.”
Finally, Elizabeth traveled with her family to Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago for the bone graft surgery, where bone tissue was used to create bone structure and keep her nose straight and in place. After this same surgery was unsuccessfully attempted at another children’s hospital last year, one of Elizabeth's cleft specialists offered a piece of advice. “You need the best in the country; you need Dr. Gosain from Lurie Children's,” he said.
Dr. Arun K. Gosain, Division Head of Plastic Surgery at Lurie Children’s, operated on Elizabeth for five hours to reconstruct the entire support structure of her nose. “We straightened her septum and addressed her lack of lining on the inside of her nose,” he said. “These two adjustments will give her a longer lasting result.” Not until high school will Elizabeth need more surgery.
With Dr. Gosain, whose extensive research on cleft lip and palate repair has been published widely, “Elizabeth feels like she is in really good hands,” Heather said.
In September, Elizabeth started middle school. After a successful bone graft and smooth recovery, she can go to school without the nasal stents she once depended on to support the form of her nose. She is thrilled to be finished with her surgeries and is still adjusting to her new reflection.
But the transformation is more than skin-deep. “She has learned that her story inspires people to help others,” Heather wrote on Team E’s page. “Can you imagine a more powerful lesson for an 11-year-old?”