Can Cleft Palate Surgery be Performed in the Virgin Islands?

Can Cleft Palate Surgery be Performed in the Virgin Islands?


The palate is the formal name given to describe the roof of your mouth. As you run your tongue over the roof of your mouth, you can feel that it is made up of muscle and bone, covered by skin. The back of the palate is called the soft palate and the front is known as the hard palate. A cleft palate can range from just an opening at the back of the soft palate, to a possible separation of the entire roof of the mouth, in both the soft and hard palates. The palate serves an important purpose, as it separates your nose from your mouth. The palate helps your mouth and nose perform many functions, such as how you talk, chew, and breathe. When you talk, the roof of your mouth helps prevent air from blowing out of your nose instead of your mouth, and it also prevents food and drink from going up into the nasal cavity.

During pregnancy, separate areas of the face develop individually and then join together, especially the mouth and lips. However, sometimes during pregnancy some parts do not join properly. If the separation occurs in the upper lip, the child is said to have a cleft lip, if the roof of the mouth doesn’t form completely and has an opening in it, the result is called a cleft palate. These are birth defects called orofacial clefts.

A cleft palate is one of the most common birth defects in the United States. The incomplete formation of the upper lip (cleft lip) or roof of the mouth (cleft palate) can occur individually, or both birth defects may occur simultaneously. Research shows that cleft defects occur in about one out of every 800 babies.

These birth defects can vary in severity and may involve one or both sides of the face. Therefore, it is important as a parent to visit a pediatric plastic surgeon who specializes in oral surgery as soon as possible. A cleft palate can be detrimental to a child’s self-esteem, causing emotional and behavioral issues due to differences in appearance. It can cause breathing problems, eating and drinking difficulties, and cause severe issues with talking and speech development. 

In most cases, for children who are born with a cleft palate, surgery is recommended. A cleft palate is safe to be treated with surgery when the child is between 7 to 18 months old. However, this depends upon each child and their specific case. For example, if the child has other health problems, it is likely that the surgery will be delayed. The major goals of cleft palate surgery are to close the gap or hole between the roof of the mouth and nose, reconnect the muscles in the roof of the mouth, and make it longer to repair functionality. 

When surgery is done by an experienced, qualified oral and maxillofacial surgeon such as Dr. Stelnicki, the results and outcome is often very successful. In the Virgin Islands, Dr. Stelnicki along with a team of other physicians at Schneider Regional Medical Center (SRMC), completed the first cleft palate repair surgery on a three-year-old named Angel, in March 2017 in St. Thomas.

Children who receive this life changing cleft palate surgery will experience great improvements in eating, breathing, and speech. Dr. Stelnicki says that his goal is to be able to provide reconstructive surgery such as cleft palate and lip surgery, along with other services to the people of the Virgin Islands and the wider Caribbean, allowing them to stay close to home. Correcting these defects can drastically improve a person’s confidence, self-esteem, and overall quality of life.

Dr. Stelnicki is a leader in the field of cleft lip, nose, and palate surgeries, and was the founding surgeon who pioneered the Cleft and Craniofacial Center multidisciplinary team at Joe DiMaggio Children's Hospital in South Florida.

If you’re expecting, or you have a child that has been diagnosed with a cleft lip or palate, Dr. Stelnicki can help restore the form and function for a safe and healthy childhood. Request an appointment online at one of our convenient South Florida or St. Thomas locations, or call (954) 983-1899 today.