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The FACES Foundation and the power of speech

Southwest nonprofit offers speech therapy to cleft lip, palate reconstruction patients
by: Submitted photo Nurse Tammy Berks holds a patient in Peru before a cleft lip and palate surgery.

SOUTHWEST - A group gathered around Dr. Thomas Albert's kitchen table on a recent Saturday, a scene that seemed typical for the weekend - heaps of bagels, stacks of papers and steaming cups of coffee. But, the activity around this table was far different from the morning rituals of news scanning and crosswords. Through an open laptop, members of FACES Foundation were performing speech therapy on their Peruvian patients 3,865 miles away.

Made up of surgeons, speech therapists and volunteers, FACES (Foundation for the Advancement of Cleft Education and Services) is an innovative Portland-based nonprofit organization that brings cleft lip and palate surgeries to indigent, medically isolated patients in Peru. Albert, FACES founder and a maxillofacial surgeon at Oregon Health and Science University, and his team have performed more than 200 surgeries since 2001.

A cleft is a separation of the parts of the lip or roof of the mouth that usually come together during the early developmental stages of an unborn child. A cleft lip is a separation of the two sides of the lip and often includes the bones of the upper jaw and upper gum. Children with cleft lip and palates find it difficult, if not impossible, to speak clearly, attend regular school and feel like productive members of their community.

Although the team has healed hundreds of cleft lip and palates, the true innovation of FACES happens after the trips to Peru, once the surgeries and post-op healing are complete.

The genius of FACES lies in what happens at Albert's kitchen table on Saturday mornings - the use of technology, primarily 3G and WiFi internet connections, to teach patients how to speak.

'We knew that what allows a person to function in their community and their family is that they are able to speak intelligently and be understood. Surgery by itself doesn't necessarily do that, so the speech therapy program is a critical part of getting people to interact,' Albert said.

Speech does not come naturally after a cleft palate is surgically healed but instead requires intensive instruction to help patients learn to make the necessary sounds of speech. It is not an easy process but is one that the FACES team knew would have the greatest effect.

Many international medical groups perform cleft lip and palate surgeries on those in need, but the FACES team recognized that surgery needed to be accompanied with speech therapy. Its unique, holistic perspective has led the group to harness widely available technology in a fresh way - all the team needs to perform post-surgery speech therapy is an internet connection and computers on two ends, in Portland and in Peru.

Via Internet conferencing, like on iChat or Skype, highly trained speech therapists in Portland show patients how to move their mouths, lips and tongues to make the sounds of speech after they've healed from their operation.

The team has seen hundreds of successes, but the story of one Peruvian patient, Milagros, stands out.

Milagros received several surgeries from FACES and went through the full speech therapy program. She has since enrolled in college, confidently speaks in front of her class and is studying to become a speech therapist.

The FACES team hopes to expand its speech program geographically and technologically. Its members are currently looking into new technology through which they can conduct speech therapy.

'I think that we are realizing that we can start to reach further and further,' Albert said. 'Wireless and cell phone connectivity is what's changing the world, and we're realizing we can do therapy over just a cell phone, too.'

To learn more about FACES Foundation or to donate to its surgical and speech therapy efforts, visit www.facesfoundation.org.