The Girl He Couldn’t Turn Away
A charity is born from a dentist’s desire to help a child with a disfiguring disease
Leon Klempner couldn’t say no to Saline Atieno.
The New York orthodontist had been on medical missions all over the world for 15 years, helping plastic surgeons repair cleft lips and palates and related problems. The most devastating part, he says, was turning away children whose conditions were so severe—burns, craniofacial deformities from disease and infection—that they could not be treated during a two-week mission. “They come because it is really their last hope,” says Klempner, DG77. “And when they are turned away, there is no place else for them to go. It’s heartbreaking.”
A regional director of a large charity in Africa contacted Klempner about Saline, who lived in a Kenyan village. Her face had been disfigured by a disease called noma, an orofacial gangrenous infection that destroys hard and soft tissues; its name is derived from the Greek word meaning “to devour.” The victims are usually children ages 2 to 10, many of them in sub-Saharan Africa. The risk factors are extreme poverty, malnutrition, poor oral hygiene and living in unsanitary environments, all of which impair the immune system
“They said a good part of her face is missing and asked if there was anything I could do. I guess that was the turning point for me,” Klempner says. “I knew I couldn’t help the hundreds of children we had turned away on other missions, but maybe I could help this one.”
In 2011, Klempner founded the nonprofit Smile Rescue Fund for Kids to raise money to bring Saline to the U.S. for treatment. She came to New York in 2013 for a series of surgeries at Stony Brook University Hospital on Long Island that would help her speak and eat. The hospital and surgeons donated their time and services.
“It was challenging because she had such severe deformities,” says Klempner, who assisted in the surgeries. “We closed a hole in her face and sealed off the palate from the nasal cavity, so she can speak pretty well and chew food. Now we are working to improve some of her facial features.”
It’s unclear how old Saline is, perhaps around 13. Duncan Owange, a teacher at Saline’s school, became her advocate. He came with her to the U.S. as her legal guardian, staying with her at foster homes that Klempner arranged and waiting at her bedside when she awoke from her surgeries.
“I knew I couldn’t help the hundreds of children we had turned away on other missions, but maybe I could help this one.” —Leon Klempner, DG77
After seven months, Owange had to return to Kenya, so Klempner became Saline’s legal guardian, and her treatment continued while she lived with foster families near the hospital.
“She is such a sweet, lovable kid,” Klempner says. “She just got dealt a poor hand. None of us chooses where we are born. Some of us luck out, and I think that carries with it a certain responsibility.”
The mission of Smile Rescue Fund for Kids, Klempner says, is “not just to help one child but to try and improve the environment and conditions that led to Saline’s disease.”
So far they have outfitted 82 homes in Saline’s village with solar lights so children can do their homework at night without having to burn kerosene and other expensive, air-polluting fuels. They have installed seven huge storage tanks to harvest rainfall, so there is a clean drinking water supply.
Before she returns to Kenya this summer, Saline will undergo a few more corrective surgeries. Her improved ability to eat and speak and the change in her appearance will, doctors hope, allow her to lead a more normal life there with her mother. Klempner’s charity is raising money to help offset the cost of her education and future care.
To learn more about Smile Rescue Fund for Kids, visit smilerescuefund.org.