Fran, gushes with emotion when she describes her son, Matt, as a strong, handsome, self-assured young man. And when Matt looks in the mirror, he has no reason to see anything different—but there’s an entire story behind the reflection that looks back at him, one that involves multiple surgeries and a team of pediatric experts at UNC. This is Matt’s story.

The Man in the Mirror

“My self-image, it wasn't perfect,” recalls Matt of his younger years and his struggle to find acceptance among his peers. “Looking in the mirror now, I see myself differently. Everything is corrected, but I’m still me at the core.”Recalling the birth of her son, Matt, more than 20 years ago, Fran remembers joy mixed with anxiety and trepidation caused by the unexpected: Matt was born with a cleft palate.

Cleft lip and cleft palate affect one in about every 700 newborns in the United States, making them among the most common birth defects. Matt presented with both—a separation of the two sides of the lip and a gap in the roof of his mouth where the palate did not fuse during his development in utero.

Like other babies born with these defects, Matt faced feeding difficulties, ear infections that could lead to hearing loss, dental problems, and speech challenges, as well as the mental and emotional trials of living with a complex medical condition and the difficult road that lie ahead in making him well.

“The doctor stopped what he was doing and arranged immediately to have a meeting at the cleft palate clinic,” remembers Fran. “It was very hard sitting there with that infant, not knowing what our options were.”

Matt’s cleft lip repair at UNC at the age of 3 months was the first of many surgeries he would have over the years, all of them requiring a highly specialized, multi-disciplinary team of caregivers. And, in later years, there was speech therapy for Matt, as well, but Fran and husband, Peter, knew they were in good hands from the start.

“They always treated Matt like he was their only son. All the surgeons would give us their home number,” says Fran of the tight bond that formed between the family and Matt’s caregivers, especially Matt’s pediatric otolaryngologist, Dr. Amelia Drake.

“[Dr. Drake] has been a constant in our lives since he was born and has kids a similar age. She knows how much I worry about his hearing and has always been responsive to that. She a surgeon, but she's mother, too.”

"What he's been through has shaped his personality," says Matt's mom, Fran. "He's wise beyond his years, more mature than his peers. And he's very tolerant, able to let things just kind of roll off his back."It was no surprise, then, that the family turned to their UNC care team when being “different” began to take a toll on Matt in middle school.

“He was being teased about the way he looked,” recalls Fran. “We didn't know this until ninth grade. He was acting out and that wasn't normal for Matt. [ . . . ] The first thing I did is call Kim Uhrich [a social worker in the UNC Craniofacial Center] and arranged a meeting with Matt. Kim’s been like a big sister—any time I have questions she was always there for me. Kim would get us where we needed to be.”

After that meeting, Matt, together with his parents and his care team, made the decision to pursue plastic surgery. It was a long road, but Matt had his final procedure—jaw surgery to correct a pronounced under bite—at age 17.

“My self-image, it wasn't perfect,” recalls Matt of his younger years and his struggle to find acceptance among his peers. “Looking in the mirror now, I see myself differently. Everything is corrected, but I’m still me at the core.”

And what an amazing person he is at his core! Now 20, Matt is a pre-business major at UNC Chapel Hill (on a scholarship, no less!), aspiring to become a financial advisor and, perhaps one day, open his own music store.

“I’ve been playing guitar for seven years,” says Matt, who loves blues music and idolizes guitar greats like Eric Clapton and Buddy Guy.

Once wanting to hide his face to the world, Matt has used his musical talents, taught by dad, Peter, to perform in front of groups of people.

“He's very outgoing, funny and got a great disposition,” gushes Fran of her son. “Seeing him develop into such a strong, handsome, self-assured person in spite of everything he’s been through, we’re so pleased with where he is in his life and so proud of the young man he's become.”

Adds Fran, “The bottom line for us is that we’re so grateful to the craniofacial team at UNC—and so blessed that they are right in our backyard.”

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