Life-changing surgery gives NYC teen with rare disfigurements new face

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For most of her life, Taina Martinez was wracked with anxiety about venturing outside — scared of the horrified stares and mocking laughter.

The 17-year-old New York City native was born with a rare combination of facial and head anomalies that impacted her ability to see and eat — and left her looking different from everyone else.

“I couldn’t go outside that much because a lot of people would just stare at me. Sometimes people kind of laughed at me,” she told The Post on Thursday.

But now, after receiving a life-changing reconstructive surgery at Lenox Hill Hospital, Martinez will start off 2021 with a new face — and a brighter future.

“It’s exciting,” she said. “I get to spend this whole new year connecting with myself and gaining more self-acceptance.”

Since birth, Martinez has grappled with several debilitating facial disfigurements, including a left cleft lip and palate deformity, and a rare craniosynostosis syndrome that affects the shape of the skull.

She underwent her first surgery at just 4 1/2 months — and has gone through at least 12 other procedures since, her family and doctors said.

At the age of 9, Martinez had an invasive surgery in which doctors attempted to bring parts of her face forward. It required her to wear a large metal device on her head for several months after.

“It was not easy at all. I was in a lot of physical discomfort,” she recalled.

In fact, growing up in general wasn’t always easy, the teen admitted, saying “there were times when I struggled.”

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Before and after photos of Taina Martinez’s surgery.

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new-face-taina-martinez.jpg

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But the kindness and support of friends and family, including her older brother Gabriel, helped get her through tough times.

“Even though there were people from outside who stared at me, I had a lot of friends who didn’t really care about how I looked,” Martinez said.

“They saw me as me — and that helped me a lot.”

For several years after the procedure she had when she was 9, Martinez took a break from surgeries — but, as she reached her teens, doctors knew there was at least one more surgery she would need.

Planning for the intricate operation began about three years ago with a team of doctors from the non-profit NextGen Face, including Dr. James Bradley, the vice chair of plastic surgery at Northwell Health.

“It wasn’t just about appearance… there were functional components to it as well,” including helping the teen breathe and eat better, Bradley told The Post.

To prepare, Martinez had to wear braces for a few years to ready her teeth for the risky and complicated procedure, called a “Facial Bipartition Monobloc Distraction.”

Taina MartinezTaina MartinezStephen Yang for NY Post

The intricate six and a half-hour long operation would fix her underbite, reshape her skull and bring her eyes closer together — ridding her of sleep apnea, making her teeth fit together and protecting her eyes.

As Dr. David Langer, chair of neurosurgery at Lenox Hill, removed two inches of bone from Martinez’s skull through a craniotomy, Bradley worked to bring her eye orbits closer together.

The doctors then inserted cranial distractors to gradually move Martinez’s facial bones even closer together over a three-week period after the surgery, requiring her parents to use screwdrivers to work the devices.

“It was tough to see my daughter go through so much,” said Martinez’s mother, Rosa Molina Martinez, a hotel worker put out of a job by the coronavirus pandemic.

But, “she’s so resilient,” the mom marveled.

The night before the July operation, Rosa told her daughter: “no matter what you’re beautiful to me… you don’t have to go through this.”

But the teen said she felt like she’d regret it for the rest of her life if she didn’t go through with surgery, especially as she gearing up to go to college and move forward with her life.

Taina with her mother Rosa Molina-Martinez and father Angel Martinez.Taina with her mother Rosa Molina-Martinez and father Angel Martinez.Stephen Yang for NY Post

Without it, she could have lost teeth or gone blind as she got older, Bradley said.

“I’m glad that we did it when we did,” he said. “She invested the trust in us, but we had to get her there… we’re very glad that it all worked out.”

Recovering from such a complex procedure took several months, but the teen says she now “feels a lot better, both physically and emotionally.”

“I’m very happy with the results,” Martinez said. “I feel a lot more comfortable in public.”

Still, “It did take sometime to get used to because my face looks a lot different than it used to.”

“Then, I reminded myself that no matter what I’m still me. Its not like I’m a different person because I have a different face.”

Her mom added: “No matter how your kid look you love them the way they are… I felt like I missed her old face but i know its still her.”

Her lifelong ordeals taught Martinez to be “a lot more resilient, confident.”

“The surgery gave me another reminder to have more confidence, and that my face is the only face I’ll ever have because its my own.”

Taina MartinezTaina MartinezStephen Yang for NY Post

The high school senior at The Summit School in Queens is now busy applying to colleges. She wants to become an occupational therapist, saying “I want to help people the same way that I was helped.”

To the doctors and other healthcare workers who took care of her she said: “Thank you from the bottom of my heart.”

Now, she’s looking forward to graduation.

“Since people are big on graduation photos, I always thought to myself, I wand to have a photo I can be happy with for my graduation.”

While she does still need a minor procedure on her nose, she won’t have to worry about any more invasive surgeries when she leaves high school.

“I can go through my life without having to worry about my face anymore,” Martinez said.

“Now, I can spend more time working on my studies and looking to the future… I’m looking forward to starting a new chapter in my life.”

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