Paola Pinto-Patarroyo, MD, and her husband, Luis Franco, MD, had their 20-week ultrasound circled on the calendar for weeks. When the day arrived, the first-time parents eagerly studied the monitor along with the obstetrician.
A wave of excitement rushed over the couple when they learned they were having a boy. But nothing could prepare them for what their obstetrician told them next: Their son had a cleft lip and cleft palate.
“It was like falling through a hole that had no floor,” says Paola, who was training to become a rheumatologist at the time. “I just remember hugging Luis and questioning what we did wrong.”
Luis, a geneticist, arranged for the couple to receive genetic testing before their pregnancy, but the results came back normal. Nothing indicated their pregnancy would be anything other than ordinary.
Cleft lip and cleft palate are birth defects that occur when a baby’s lip or mouth do not form properly during pregnancy. About one in 1,600 babies are born with cleft lip and palate, making it one of the most common birth defects. While the causes in most newborns are unknown, a combination of genes and environmental factors are likely responsible.
Still in shock, Paola and Luis began researching treatment options for their son, whom they decided to name Marco. Their search led them to the Texas Cleft-Craniofacial Team at McGovern Medical School at UTHealth, a collaboration with Children’s Memorial Hermann Hospital. There they met John F. Teichgraeber, MD, known affectionately as Dr. T.
“Dr. T stood by our side from that very first meeting,” says Paola. “His care and compassion gave us the confidence that Marco would be healthy and live a normal life.”
Over the next few months, Paola and Luis took comfort in support from friends and family. By the time Marco was born in July 2011, they were ecstatic to meet him.
“Everything became perfect the moment I saw him,” says Paola. “Once I was able to hold him, kiss him, and see how beautiful he was, I was finally able to climb out of that hole of uncertainty.”
Marco began nasoalveolar molding therapy to non-surgically reshape the gums, lips, and nostrils just five days after he was born. For 24 hours a day, he wore a mouthpiece and nasal stent to reduce the size of his clefts and prepare for a successful surgery. At 13 weeks, Teichgraeber successfully repaired Marco’s lip and nose.
Luis and Paola celebrated Marco’s first birthday by raising funds to thank Teichgraeber and his team for walking them through the first year of Marco’s life. Sharing their story with friends and family, they raised $11,000 for the team.
“We feel privileged to have such a wonderful community of support and access to incredible physicians such as Dr. T,” says Paola. “We want to help other families who are going through the same thing.”
Marco needed additional surgeries from Teichgraeber over the next two years to repair his cleft palate and to have ear tubes inserted to prevent chronic fluid build-up. Dental professionals from UTHealth School of Dentistry also helped maintain his oral health, and speech therapists helped him learn to speak.
In 2014, just before Marco’s third birthday, Luis and Paola took jobs at the National Institutes of Health in Washington, D.C. By then, Teichgraeber was an integral part of their family. They continued traveling to the Texas Cleft-Craniofacial Team at UT Physicians Pediatric Surgery Clinic each year until Marco’s final facial reconstruction procedure in July 2019. “We changed our cities, jobs, lives—everything except Dr. T,” says Paola.
Following his parents’ example, Marco celebrated his eighth birthday by hosting a fundraiser to support the Texas Cleft-Craniofacial Team.
“I already have everything I could ever want,” Marco told his mother. “I just want to do what you did for my first birthday to thank Dr. T.”
Marco included a personal note in each party invitation asking for donations to the clinic instead of gifts. After his birthday, he proudly presented Teichgraeber with a check for $900.
“Most people don’t realize anything was ever wrong with Marco’s face,” says Paola. “He has never been self-conscious about who he is and how his face looks, and we have Dr. T, the Texas Cleft-Craniofacial Team, and UT Physicians Surgery Clinic to thank for that.”
For more than two decades, Teichgraeber devoted his career to serving children born with cleft lip/palate. As the former Director of the Texas Cleft-Craniofacial Team and a frequent volunteer on mission trips, he used his surgical expertise to provide hope and healing for families around the world.
In anticipation of Teichgraeber’s retirement from the practice in August 2019, Matthew R. Greives, MD, led a secret crowdfunding campaign to commemorate his colleague and mentor’s legacy of selfless service. The campaign’s target was to raise $50,000 to establish the Dr. John F. Teichgraeber Educational Endowment in the Division of Pediatric Plastic and Craniofacial Surgery. However, an outpouring of support from patients, colleagues, friends, and family raised more than $100,000.
“I feel privileged to know Dr. T as a colleague, mentor, educator, surgeon, and friend,” says Greives. “As I step into his role as Director of the Division of Pediatric Plastic and Craniofacial Surgery, I am honored to continue his legacy by providing the same extraordinary level of care to patients and their families.”
At Teichgraeber’s retirement party, Greives surprised him by announcing the establishment of the endowment. The endowment will support research, distinguished visiting lecturers, and faculty and student attendance at conferences, creating a permanent source of funds to educate future health care leaders who follow in Teichgraeber’s footsteps to improve the health of our communities.
“I am surprised and deeply humbled by everyone who helped establish this endowment,” says Teichgraeber. “It has been my greatest pleasure to serve children born with orofacial clefts and craniofacial deformities and to train the future medical professionals and leaders who will continue to brighten the lives of these children.”