New Hyde Park, N.Y. -- Sporting a big smile and a bright pink T-shirt emblazoned with “Girls Can Change the World,” 13-year-old Aster Degaro and her father, Derebe, joined the three surgeons who saved her life during a press conference held yesterday at Cohen Children’s Medical Center.
Aster was suffering with a congenital condition that caused an enormous lymphatic tumor to grow inside her neck. Known as a teratoma, the tumor that pressed on her larynx had grown so large that it had become life-threatening. During the press conference, Thomas Romo, MD, founder of the Baby Face Foundation and Director of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery at Lenox Hill Hospital; Milton Waner, MD, Director of the Vascular Birthmarks Institute of New York and Lee P. Smith, MD, Chief, Division of Pediatric Otolaryngology, Cohen, explained how this enormous growth was removed during a seven-hour surgery that took place on Sept. 11.
The doctors used photos taken during the surgery to illustrate how they removed the massive growth that was threatening Aster’s life. First, the surgeons carefully dissected the tumor. The main concern was to separate the mass from the major nerves and blood vessels, including the carotid artery and jugular vein. The tumor was separated from the trachea and esophagus. Finally, Dr. Romo was able to remove the excess skin and repair the defect with minimal scarring.
Aster’s journey to Cohen began three years ago when she was discovered by an American doctor on a medical mission in Ethiopia. The struggle to bring her to the United States was almost insurmountable before the family came to the attention of the Baby Face Foundation (which was founded and is now led by Dr. Romo).
As Aster and her father (both of whom spoke to reporters through an interpreter) listened intently, the surgeons revealed that Aster was one of five children born into a destitute family in southern Ethiopia. She lives with her parents in a mud hut with no electricity or running water. The large tumor caused her to be ostracized by the villagers, forcing her to stay home. She couldn’t attend school and was left with the task of caring for her five siblings. Now, all that has changed.
“My daughter is a very shy girl who was never able to play with friends,” Derebe said. Noting that Sept. 11 is also New Year’s Day in Ethiopia, the emotional father said, “This is not just a new year, it is the start of a new life. My daughter can go to school and have friends…it is a new beginning.”
When asked how the surgery and her new look has changed her life, Aster flashed her smile and said, “Now I know that I’m beautiful and I can do anything. I say thank you to everyone.”