In a hospital in Chiclayo, Peru, a brother and sister being prepped for surgery were unsure what to expect. Both had been born with cleft palates and cleft lips.
But then Makena Kerr, 17, greeted them, smiled and shared her own story through an interpreter. Born in China with a cleft palate and cleft lip, she’d had the same surgery as the siblings were about to have. Makena’s gentle words and smile put the kids at ease.
“When I told them my story, they were touched,” said the Fort Vancouver High School senior, who plans to become a surgeon who performs cleft palate and cleft lip surgery.
Makena traveled to Peru with a Portland surgical team in January. Serving as a patient representative, she connected with patients and their families before and after surgery.
Teams from the Foundation for the Advancement of Cleft Education and Services, or FACES, travel to northern Peru twice annually. The team performed 103 procedures on 54 patients in January. Makena’s own surgeons, Dr. Tom Albert and Dr. Dana Smith, were part of the FACES team.
The Foundation for the Advancement of Cleft Education and Services
• Surgical teams travel to Peru twice annually to perform cleft lip and cleft palate surgeries on impoverished people.
• Learn more at http://facesfoundation.org
Cleft lip is the incomplete formation of the upper lip; cleft palate is the incomplete formation of the roof of the mouth. It can require several surgeries to correct.
Makena’s volunteer work in Peru confirmed her dream.
“I would be able to relate to my patients when they’re scared,” she said.
She observed surgeries and asked questions. Because she has participated in Fort Vancouver’s medical magnet program for four years, she understood the terminology. She will receive some college credit for her work. Later this spring, she will shadow a doctor.
Makena plans to attend Clark College next fall and hopes to transfer to the University of Washington for her undergraduate degree and Oregon Health & Science University for her graduate degree.
“I believe going on the Peru trip with FACES had a huge impact on Makena,” said Colleen Dunegan, medical magnet coordinator. “She has always had an interest in medicine, but I think now she has found her purpose in medicine, which will be working with humanitarian organizations such as Doctors without Borders and FACES. Makena will be an amazing health care professional. Not only is she very intelligent, but she also is very compassionate. I know she will make a difference in people’s lives.”
Dunegan added that she hopes someday Dr. Makena will visit her former teacher.
“I will be begging her to stop by and talk to the next generation of high school students about her struggles and triumphs as a doctor and the secrets to her success,” Dunegan said.
Focus on the future
When Makena was 4, she was adopted by Alan Kerr and Barbara Kerr in Vancouver. They had traveled to China to meet their daughter. Previously, the Kerrs had adopted a son, Matthew, from Russia. When Makena was 13, she accompanied her family to China to adopt a sister, YiMei. All of the Kerr children required cleft lip and cleft palate surgery. Both Matthew and YiMei are now 19.
Makena has had more than a dozen surgeries so far. Her most recent surgery was in September. Her doctors may do another bone graft this summer.
“They take bone from my hip and put it in my mouth,” she explained.
Barbara Kerr put the many surgeries into perspective: “After awhile, you don’t count anymore of how many they have had, but more important to us is how many more do they need to have. We focus on what is in the future.”
She added: “Makena will succeed at whatever she puts her mind to, and being a surgeon is who Makena is. She doesn’t just want to be a surgeon, but she wants to work for Doctors without Borders or something similar. She wants to use her skills to make lives better for children in need.”
Kerr referred to her daughter as “an old and beautiful soul.” When Makena was 5 or 6, she was sitting on her mom’s lap when she looked into her eyes and said, “You should have found me sooner, Mama. I was looking for you.”
Makena has been nominated as a 2016 Woman of Distinction by Washington State University Vancouver. She also is a competitive gymnast who coaches a special-abilities gymnastics team.
Reflecting on her experience in Peru, Makena said, “It really touched me how one surgery could touch a child’s life. It makes me want to be a surgeon even more. I really want to go on medical missions as a surgeon.”