Kiden Kee walks into the exam room at the plastic surgeon’s office, carrying a tin of homemade red velvet cupcakes as a gift.
I just want to tell people who I am now. I used to be really afraid to show who I am. I used to hide my hands literally in my pockets. Now I really do not care what people say about me. And I am so thankful for that.
It’s been four months since a major operation to repair her nose and upper lip. Her surgeon wants to see how the skin has healed.
For Kiden, a veteran of multiple plastic surgeries, the appointment has the easy feeling of a visit with a friend.
Kiden smiles and gives him a hug.
In a series of three operations, he used tissue from her lips and rib cartilage to create the bridge that separates the nasal passages. Kiden was born without that structure so her nose lay flat against her upper lip.
Dr. Polley is pleased with the results—especially because he had never before attempted the three-step operation.
It was unique. Like Kiden.
At 14, Kiden is embracing her uniqueness. She recently began a video series on YouTube sharing her story and encouraging others to embrace life—and what makes them unique.
Surgery since infancy
Kiden, the only girl in a family with six boys, lives in southwest Chicago. Before birth, damage to the placenta caused the formation of amniotic bands that cut off blood supply to parts of her body. Most of her fingers are shortened. She is missing a toe.
It’s not my fault that I was made like this. I’m different and I’m OK with that. I know that I’m pretty.
And she was born with a severe bilateral cleft lip and palate. The upper part of her mouth “was like three different pieces. She had no gum line at all,” said her mom, Julie Kee.
Kiden had her first operation at 6 months—to close the lip. She later underwent surgery in which skin and tissue from her forearm were used to close the hole in the roof of her mouth.
She has had at least eight surgeries, and more lie ahead. But they don’t faze Kiden.
“I don’t get nervous,” she said.
Her parents decided early on to raise her the way they raised their boys—with the same expectations and opportunities.
“Our approach is that Kiden is unstoppable,” Julie said. “There is nothing she can’t do. I’ve never shied away from putting her in activities.”
Kiden thrived as an athlete and performer. She played basketball and volleyball and ran track. She was a cheerleader—and performed with an all-star squad.
In the past year, she has focused her energy on her greatest passion—dance, especially contemporary and hip-hop. In fall 2015, she started as a freshman in the dance conservatory at the prestigious Chicago High School for the Arts.
Her parents were told Kiden likely would need therapy to help her manage with shortened fingers. But she didn’t.
“She has beautiful handwriting,” Julie said.
“What she has learned is how to adapt and overcome,” said her dad, Kevin Kee. “I learn stuff from her all the time.”
In her videos, Kiden talks about being subjected to rude stares and unkind comments. And Julie says she was tempted sometimes to be overly protective, to shield her daughter from the scrutiny of others.
“But we didn’t,” she said. “My husband stood strong on that.”
It was Kiden’s decision to create videos and post them online.
Asked why she did it, Kiden at first said she was just bored one day.
But then she added she wanted to reach other kids, especially those afraid to talk to others about their fears.
A unique challenge, unique solution
Kiden first saw Dr. Polley at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. When he moved to Spectrum Health, the Kees continued to bring Kiden to see him in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
The thing about all these surgeries—I get these cool scars. It’s fun.
They relied on his expertise as an international leader in facial reconstruction. And Kiden had developed a trusting relationship with him. Her parents didn’t want to disrupt that, especially as she entered her teen years.
“If he moved to Peru, we would go there,” said Kevin, a Chicago firefighter.
The latest round of surgeries involved procedures Dr. Polley had done before—reconstruction of the upper lip and nose. But he had to put them together in a unique way.
“The tip of her nose was basically right down on her lip,” he said. “She had no support in there.”
He wanted to use upper-lip tissue to build the nose. But because of scars from previous surgery, he did not feel comfortable doing the operation all at once. In summer and fall of 2015, he worked in three stages:
Aug. 14: Dr. Polley first did a delayed flap. He cut around tissue in the upper lip that would be used to build the nose.
“I cut almost all the way around it but not quite,” he said. “When the tissues get cut off from the blood supply, it strengthens the other blood supply they have.”
Sept. 9: This was the big operation. Dr. Polley used the flap of skin from the upper lip to build the nose, using cartilage from a rib for structure.
At the same time, he did a “lip-switch procedure.” Tissue from the lower lip was cut, rotated and sewn into the upper lip. It remained connected to the lower lip, however, so the blood supply stayed intact.
Having a flap of skin stretching from the lower to upper lip meant Kiden’s mouth was sewn shut for the first month of her freshman year—except for a gap just big enough for a straw. She went on a liquid diet for a month.
Communication proved to be tough.
“I tried to talk, but people didn’t really understand what I was saying,” she said. She sent a lot of texts.
Oct. 6: With the blood supply established for the upper lip, Dr. Polley released its connection with the lower lip.
Great determination = success
For all the people who are made like me—I don’t want you guys to give up. You can do anything that everybody else can do. You aren’t made like everyone else. But that’s your strength.
The operations succeeded in opening up her nasal passage, which will help with eating and speech.
“It really worked well for her,” he said. “She was a great patient. It’s not easy to have your lips stuck together.”
Dr. Polley credits Kiden’s success to her strong parent support as well as her natural enthusiasm.
“Despite all the problems she has had, all the setbacks and surgeries, she is just a great spirit,” he said. “She has great understanding, great determination.
“And that spells success regardless of the obstacles that are in front of you.”
A break between operations
Meeting with Kiden and her parents in February, Dr. Polley tells them what will come next.
In a couple of years, she will need braces for six to 12 months. After that, probably in the summer of 2018, he will do surgery to bring her upper jaw forward.
For now, he says, Kiden can take a break from surgery.
Kiden presents the cupcakes to him. She plans to be a pastry chef someday and, recently, took a cupcake-decorating class with her dad.
“You know my weakness,” Dr. Polley says.
He praises Kiden’s strength and resilience through the operations and recovery.
“I’m really proud of you,” he says. “You’ve done fantastic.”