Patient Turned Volunteer at CHKD’s Craniofacial Center

Ricky Brink came to CHKD so often when he was growing up, it felt like a second home to him.

The Chesapeake 19-year-old was born with a cleft lip and palate, common birth defects in which there is an opening or split in the upper lip and roof of the mouth.

Ricky Brink as a baby.He wasn’t even a month old when he had his first surgery at CHKD.

To follow were so many surgeries and other treatments related to the condition, he lost count.

But Karen Via, coordinator of CHKD’s Cleft and Craniofacial Center, counts at least 20, which includes surgery to repair the cleft lip, then the cleft palate, revisions as he grew, a cranial bone graft surgery, major jaw surgeries and dental procedures to better align his jaw. Ear tubes also had to be inserted – numerous times -- and his adenoids removed.

“I’d go to CHKD once or twice a year when I was younger,” Ricky said. “They know me, and I know them, it’s like a second family.”

You might think that he would want a break from CHKD, but the Tidewater Community College student instead started volunteering at the Craniofacial Center in January. His years of CHKD treatment created a desire to become an ear, nose, and throat doctor.

“I do a little bit of everything. I try and talk with the ENT or plastic surgeon or others to learn as much as I can. If they need me to clean a room and wipe it down between patients, I do that. Just being around them is fun in itself. It’s a great experience. It’s cool to talk with the doctors. It gives me insight into how they do their job.”

Ricky Brink at 19-years-old.Ricky is telling his story to celebrate National Cleft and Craniofacial Awareness and Prevention Month, which is celebrated in July.

He’s just one of 800 patients CHKD’s craniofacial team of plastic surgeons, ear, nose, and throat surgeons, oral and maxillofacial surgeons, neurosurgeons, audiologists, speech pathologists, medical geneticists, orthodontists, and social workers treats every year. The team performs 200 surgical procedures annually for patients with a cleft or craniofacial abnormalities. This multidisciplinary approach has led to accreditation by the American Cleft Palate-Craniofacial Association.

Ricky feels he can be supportive to patients and families who come through the clinic, since he has been on the same journey, and is a testament to years of expert treatment.

“I remember there was a little kid who was 4 months old who came in with his mom and dad. When I saw them in the exam room, I thought, ‘That was me 19 years ago. And that was my mom and dad 19 years ago.’ And now I’m on the other side of treatment.”