MRI Shows Mass on Baby's Head, Newborn Left in NICU with Mass Covering His Face


If new parents could be said to have a universal wish for their children, it would be that their little ones might come out of the womb healthy and whole.

Sadly, not every pregnancy goes that way, and when developmental abnormalities surface, they often devastate families.

When Toledo, Ohio, surgical nurse Valeka Riegel became pregnant with her third child at the age of 45, she knew the challenges that she could face. Neonatal risks skyrocket once mothers cross into midlife.

“For five months, I cried, became angered, fearful and resentful of God,” she wrote in an open letter to her baby.

“Why would he bring you into my life, at the age of 45? Only to become a statistical probability of surviving 1 in 5,000 live births?

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“I was confused. As a nurse, I had medicine to believe in. But as a mom, I chose to surrender to my faith.”

Riegel had good reason to be afraid. Scans showed that her unborn child, little Zakary, had an encephalocele, a kind of a neural-tube defect that can present like a tumor.

Essentially, Zakary’s skull hadn’t formed correctly. An abnormality in the bone had allowed a balloon-like sac to develop in the middle of his forehead, a sac filled with fluid — and brain tissue.

After his birth, Riegel finally got to see the challenge facing her son and a dedicated team of physicians at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center.

“The growth covered [his face] from his nose to his mouth, and when you looked at him as a baby, all you saw was a little mouth,” she said.

Zakary would need surgery if he was going to survive, but physicians had to wait until he was at least 15 pounds before commencing. That meant the newborn was left in the NICU with the giant mass covering his face for 128 days, and Riegel stayed with him at every available opportunity.

Pediatric neurosurgeon Dr. Charles Stevenson led the team that would work on Zakary. Not only were the doctors trying to give him a chance at life, they had to conduct the procedure in such a way that he would have a chance to normally develop down the road.

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“There were several steps involved, including exposing the forehead, exposing the defect, amputating all that tissue, and then reconstructing a normal brain, and then reconstructing all of the normal layers or barriers which had formed a the time of development,” Stevenson told ABC News.

Next, plastic surgeon Dr. Brian Pan was tasked with fixing the extensive scarring on Zakary’s little face.

After the procedure, Dr. Pan “said to me, ‘He doesn’t look like Zakary, but he still has the same beautiful smile,’” Riegel recalled. “Just look at his smile and you will see Zakary, I promise you.”

And that was exactly what Zakary did when he came out of surgery: smile. Not only were the two surgeries successful, little Zakary has continued to hit developmental milestones after returning home, showing he has only a bright future ahead of him.

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A graduate of Wheaton College with a degree in literature, Loren also adores language. He has served as assistant editor for Plugged In magazine and copy editor for Wildlife Photographic magazine.
A graduate of Wheaton College with a degree in literature, Loren also adores language. He has served as assistant editor for Plugged In magazine and copy editor for Wildlife Photographic magazine. Most days find him crafting copy for corporate and small-business clients, but he also occasionally indulges in creative writing. His short fiction has appeared in a number of anthologies and magazines. Loren currently lives in south Florida with his wife and three children.
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