Vilija was diagnosed with a cleft lip and palate at 19 weeks gestation. She is now 19 years old and has undergone 10 surgeries with her most recent in 2015. She is currently preparing to undergo one final procedure—a rhinoplasty, not for aesthetics, but to alleviate her sinus troubles.

According to Vilija, her most difficult surgery was the nineth, her alveolar bone graft. Dr. Costello took bone marrow from her hip and packed it into her clefted gum line. It was after this surgery that Dr. Costello told Vilija that she could not dance for four to six weeks. Dietary restrictions were bad enough, but to not be able to dance was just plain awful. During her follow-up visit she was told that she could return to dance but to “take it easy.” Taking it easy was never my daughter’s motto. When she does something, she always strives for perfection.

Being born with a cleft lip and palate has not stopped Vilija from achieving her goals. She has never allowed herself to feel different from others. She has never had any negative self-esteem issues because we raised her to feel a sense of pride in herself. She was always willing, from an early age, to share her cleft journey with anyone who would listen.

Fast forward quite a few years…2020 was supposed to be my daughter’s big year. As a senior at a performing arts school, Vilija was excited to be graduating high school, turning 18, and starting a new journey at college. Unfortunately, the pandemic hit, and things did not go as planned. Despite the circumstances, Vilija pressed on. While it was not done in the traditional way, she graduated with honors, and she went on to start college online. Yet again she persevered, earning a 4.0 GPA during her first semester and an overall 3.7 GPA by the end of her first year. Vilija will be a senior this fall because she earned 76 college credits while in high school. She will be able to move onto campus and have the chance to enjoy a true college experience. Vilija has shown nothing but grace and tenacity throughout her life. She has continued to shine despite all obstacles.

We are eternally grateful to have such a wonderful cleft team. I want to personally thank Dr. Costello (surgeon), Dr. Martin (dentist), and Dr. Schuster (orthodontist) for the amazing care they have provided to my daughter throughout her years with ACPA’s Approved Team at the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh.

– Vida Burnelis