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Patients of Courage

When terrible injuries strike, plastic surgeons repair the damage, enabling some patients to overcome the impairment and make do with less. Often, once those people have healed, those patients inspire and help others and become known as "Patients of Courage."
When a piece of his plane's propeller broke off the left engine and ripped up the side of his aircraft, Matt Warmerdam, co-pilot of Atlanta Southeast Airlines Flight 529, a small turbo-prop commuter plane, knew the craft and its 29 passengers were headed for big trouble.

Matt Warmerdam The plane crashed a little over nine minutes later, having fallen from 18,000 feet. It crash-landed in a field near Atlanta, Georgia, spilling almost a full load of jet fuel into the plane's interior and around the craft. Many passengers survived the crash but were terribly burned. Matt Warmerdam, who had always dreamed of being a pilot, was trapped in the cockpit along with his dead pilot and suffered the worst possible third degree burns over 55 percent of his body. Against all odds, Matt not only escaped the flaming plane but survived. Over the next four years, he endured numerous reconstructive surgeries and the amputation of some of his fingers.

However, flying is deep in Matt's blood and he just would not give up his lifelong dream of being a pilot. So, he learned to fly with reconstructed hands and has returned to the wild blue yonder, again with Atlanta Southeast Airlines. Matt now draws on his experiences to help other burn victims overcome their own difficulties and better cope with the more painful parts of surgeries and recoveries.

Matt is not the only patient who has been to the brink, suffered terrible injuries and then come back to help others.

Yearly, devasting illnesses, accidents and birth defects result in life altering reconstructive plastic surgery for many. But despite the injuries, debilities and stress of learning to function again with less, many reconstruction patients find the silver lining in their experiences, overcome the hurdles and go on to be of service by inspiring others through steadfast determination

It all starts when plastic surgeons restore useful lives by doing reconstructive surgery on patients suffering from potentially fatal illness, injury or disease.

So, one of the leading professional organizations for plastic surgeons, the America Society of Plastic Surgeons (A.S.P.S.) spotlights notable "Patients of Courage" yearly.

"While the surgery may occur at birth or during retirement, the recovering patient usually adopts the viewpoint that he or she has a blank canvas from which to design a new life," says the A.S.P.S.

Some seize the moment, paint an absolute masterpiece and reach formerly unthinkable goals. Thus, four Patients of Courage, who triumphed over their physical traumas and have given back to their community in spades, will be honored by A.S.P.S. during Plastic Surgery 2005 on Saturday, September 24 in Chicago. Although only four awards will be presented, A.S.P.S. member surgeons treat many patients of courage daily; each has a unique and remarkable tale of overcoming adversity.

"It takes a highly motivated person to tackle the obstacles facing most reconstructive patients," said ASPS President Scott Spear, MD. "The Patients of Courage stories are wonderful examples of how dedicated surgeons, by virtue of hard work and modern techniques, help patients conquer the most difficult and challenging times in their life."

For instance, Caitlin Sarubbi, 15, of Brooklyn, N.Y., was born with an extremely rare congenital syndrome known as "ablepharon-macrostomi," a condition in which the baby is born without eyelids and body hair. Caitlin also had a deformed mouth and face and has endured 44 surgeries from eyelid and forehead reconstruction to hand surgery, among others. Although legally blind and hearing impaired, Caitlin is a model student and star athlete. Currently training for a position on the National Paraolympic Ski Team, she volunteers for various outreach programs, for example, helping disabled soldiers just back from Iraq learn to ski.

"Disabled does not mean unable, it just means differently abled," says Caitlin.

Mabel Wong, 88, San Francisco, was attacked by five pit bulls for over thirty minutes and suffered extensive injuries. She lost her entire scalp, both ears, soft tissue of her face, and muscles and tendons in both arms. Her doctors debated if survival was even in her best interest. But Mabel did survive and, during her three-month hospital stay, received eyelid reconstruction, muscle and tendon reconstruction and skin grafting. To the delight of her family and friends, Mabel remains upbeat and is once again active in her community delivering meals to sick neighbors and teaching knitting.

Kristy Adams-Ebel Kristy Adams-Ebel, 35, of Charlotte, North Carolina, had already experienced the affects of breast cancer because her mother is a breast cancer survivor. When Kristy was diagnosed, she not only thought about taking care of herself but also wondered how she could help others. After chemotherapy, bilateral mastectomy and breast reconstruction, Kristy spearheaded a non-profit organization, Carolina Breast Friends, to create a positive environment for women with breast cancer by providing education, encouragement and friendship.

"I did not want a 'pity party' where we all sit around, wring our hands and bemoan our fates," she says. "When I was diagnosed, I worked in the pharmaceutical trade and knew that education can affect outcome of any disease." Kristy still works in the pharmaceutical industry, even though she is dealing with a recurrence of cancer.

Carolina Breast Friends meets once monthly at a local church; about 75 women, aged 25 to 75 in all stages of treatment, take part. An educational speaker is featured in alternate months; every other month, the group does something fun like hold a pool party or make stepping stones for gardens.

Additionally, Kristy raises money for the Sister Fund which helps women pay for healthcare expenses. She also continues working toward her goal of building a structure known as the Pink House where breast cancer patients and family can gather to receive counseling, makeovers, financial advice and more.

The Patients of Courage program is supported through a grant from Ethicon, Inc., a Johnson & Johnson company.

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