Nataliya appears to be a typical young adult. She has big plans for her future, including attending college and learning two new languages. She also loves spending time with her friends, listening to music, and visiting San Diego’s beautiful beaches.
But this bubbly young woman possesses immense strength and courage way beyond her 21 years.
Originally from a little province in Donetsk, Ukraine, Nataliya was born with Treacher-Collins syndrome, a rare disorder characterized by downward slanting eyes, a small lower jaw and malformed or missing ears.
Abandoned at birth by her mother and left at an orphanage, her grandmother intervened and brought Nataliya home so she could provide her granddaughter the care she required.
While attending a school for the hearing impaired in her native country, Nataliya first heard about the possibility of receiving corrective medical procedures after she caught the attention of a visiting American missionary group.
The missionaries took a photo of her and sent it to various churches across the United States asking for their help. Her photo sparked interest, and a San Diego church offered to bring Nataliya to the U.S. for treatment.
Nataliya’s journey began five years ago when she and her grandmother, both unable to speak English, came to San Diego to meet with physicians and surgeons from Fresh Start Surgical Gifts.
Founded by a Scripps plastic surgeon in 1991, this local non-profit brings free, world-class reconstructive surgery and related services to economically-disadvantaged children with physical deformities including Treacher Collins syndrome.
“When I found out my grandmother and I were coming to America, I was both excited and fearful,” said Nataliya. “We didn’t speak English, and we knew America was going to be completely different than where we came from.”
When Nataliya and her grandmother arrived in the United States they were introduced to her host parent, Helen Riley, a member of the church sponsoring the trip. Despite the initial language barrier, Nataliya and Helen became quite attached.
While most sponsor parents house a child for a few weeks, Nataliya has lived with Helen for five years and has come to rely on her support and guidance. Together the pair has embarked on a remarkable, transformative journey.
Fresh Start brings patients to San Diego from all over the world, says CEO and executive director Shari Brasher.
“Patients and families are completely cared for while they’re here receiving our services — everything from lodging, transportation, food and treatments are all handled through the generosity of our donors and friends.”
To date, Fresh Start has provided more than 4,800 kids and young adults a fresh start at life — including Nataliya.
Over the last five years, Fresh Start’s volunteer physicians—including Scripps Clinic plastic surgeon Salvatore Pacella, MD—have performed many surgeries and laser treatments designed to correct some of Nataliya’s physical deformities.
A plastic surgeon who specializes in eyes, Dr. Pacella had a particular interest in Nataliya’s case and has performed several surgeries to correct her eyes.
Dr. Pacella began volunteering with Fresh Start in 2008 and commends its mission to provide medically-necessary cosmetic and reconstructive surgeries for those who couldn’t otherwise afford it.
“Fresh Start is the only organization I’m aware of that brings together caregivers like dentists, surgeons, nurses and speech pathologists to do something remarkable for people, without any competing politics or other obstacles,” said Pacella.
“Fresh Start’s model is unique. We sponsor patients to come to the US for their care, this way we can provide the highest quality care with state of the art technology until they are completely healed.”
After performing one of his last follow-up appointments with Nataliya, Dr. Pacella commented on the remarkable transformation he has seen in her.
“She is a beautiful young woman,” he said. “As surgeons we hope to provide our patients a better quality of life, but it’s their spirit and personalities that really come through. Nataliya has been a superb patient and will go on to achieve many successes in life.”
Nataliya knows the end of her physical transformation is near, and she looks forward to her future and the challenges that lie ahead. The young woman who was abandoned by her birth mother because of her outward appearance now smiles when she shares her hopes and dreams.
“I’m no longer the same person,” said Nataliya. “Dr. Pacella and the other physicians at Fresh Start have given me the confidence to shine. They changed my life for the better, and I am forever grateful.”