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East Lyme - A month ago, 9-year-old Delisha Dominique hadn't yet tasted what is now one of her favorite foods and, more significantly, wouldn't have been able to say its name even if she'd known it.
"Chocolate," the playful little girl declared when caregiver Allison Cost asked her about her favorite flavor of ice cream, a treat she enjoyed for the first time after surgery at Lawrence + Memorial Hospital in New London on July 28.
Cost, an occupational therapist in New York City who met Delisha a year ago while serving with the Peace Corps at the Dorothy Hopkin Home for the Disabled in St. George's, Grenada, was sitting on the floor in the living room of the East Lyme home of plastic surgeon Dr. Thomas Sena. With her was Sena's daughter, a medical student, and their young charge between them.
Twenty-three-year-old Ariel Sena, now doing her clinical rotation at New York Methodist Hospital in Brooklyn, met Delisha and Cost while volunteering at the Hopkin Home during her time in medical school at St. George's University. Last Wednesday, Delisha took turns lying across the laps of the two young women, giggling as they tickled her and enticed her to play with some foam blocks.
"She's a happy kid, but before, you could never tell she was smiling," said Cost, who was granted temporary custody of Delisha to bring her to Connecticut for surgery that Dr. Sena, physician colleagues and L+M agreed to do for free. Delisha and Cost have been staying with the Sena family since then, planning to return to the tiny, impoverished Caribbean island Aug. 27.
When she was 5 or 6 years old, Delisha, who is impaired in her upper body by cerebral palsy, was badly burned in a fire. Circumstances of the fire are unclear, Cost said, but what is known is that the wounds became infected and never healed properly. Thick scar tissue on her forehead, cheeks and around her mouth restricted movement of her lips and facial muscles.
"She wasn't able to drink or sip from a straw, and her speech was very limited," Cost said.
The Hopkin Home cares for about three dozen disabled residents of all ages with a small, committed staff and a meager budget, Cost said. Though her legs are unaffected by the cerebral palsy, Delisha spent most of her time in a wheelchair, with little of the physical and occupational therapy she needed.
In June 2013, Dr. Sena traveled to Grenada to visit his daughter in medical school, and she showed him where she was volunteering. When he learned of Delisha's condition, he offered to perform the plastic surgery she needed if she could be brought to Connecticut. The home readily agreed, and Ariel Sena organized fundraisers with fellow medical students to pay for her plane ticket and other expenses.
Ariel Sena and Cost were able to accompany their young friend into the operating room.
"I got to see the surgery," Ariel Sena said. "It was cool."
The four-hour surgery, Dr. Sena said, involved removing much of the thick scar tissue and grafting skin from Delisha's back onto her face.
"The hard part was deciding how much we were going to be able to do," he said. "She's healing very well. She's been an easy kid to take care of."
Since the surgery, Delisha has thrived under the attentive care of Cost and Ariel Sena. They've taken her to Mystic Aquarium and to the Children's Museum of Southeastern Connecticut, boating on the Niantic River outside the Senas' home, swimming in a pool and splashing under a sprinkler, exploring the playscape at a nearby park - all new experiences for the 9-year-old.
"Everything for her here is just incredible," Cost said.
Ariel Sena said that since the surgery, she's witnessed Delisha making daily strides in her physical abilities and in her speech. She now initiates phrases and completes entire sentences. The other day, as she and Cost said goodbye when they were going out, Delisha said, "I'll miss you."
"This has probably been the best summer break I've ever had," said the young woman, who returned to New York Methodist Hospital this weekend after a monthlong stay at home.
Cost said Delisha is "cognitively intact" and understands everything that's going on. While most of the new experiences of the past month have been wonderful for the little girl, Cost said, she has had a difficult time with the way some people have reacted to her. In the Hopkin Home, everyone had a disability, so Delisha's scars never caused anyone to remark or shrink away from her. Even though her facial scars are greatly improved since the surgery, they are still visible, and in some of the public places she's gone in southeastern Connecticut, children and adults have made insensitive remarks or grimaced.
"She understands when kids are staring at her," Cost said. "She turns her face so they won't see."
Those difficult moments, though, haven't significantly dampened Delisha's spirits or willingness to visit new places and try new experiences, whether it's dancing at the Bulkeley House Restaurant in New London to music being played by Dr. Sena and a fellow doctor, or being charmed by the beluga whales at the aquarium.
"She's one of the most resilient children I've every known," Cost said.