NORFOLK — COVID-19 restrictions delayed surgeries everywhere, and 8-month-old Rhett Harmon was just one of many to be scrubbed from the Children’s Hospital of the King’s Daughters schedule in March because of a state-wide ban of elective surgeries.
At that age, he didn’t care, but his parents, Cassie and Layne Harmon of Covington, worried he’d miss the ideal before-his-first-birthday timeframe to correct a birth defect called “craniosynostosis,” in which the bones in his skull joined together too early.
As the baby’s brain grows, pressure builds up, causing developmental problems and a skull that looks misshapen.
Thankfully, the team at CHKD’s Craniofacial Center was able to reschedule him in June, once the ban lifted, and Rhett has now recovered just in time to celebrate July’s National Cleft and Craniofacial Awareness and Prevention Month.
The month has long been recognized by the American Cleft Palate-Craniofacial Association, and Virginia designated July as awareness month for the first time last year.
About 1 in 700 children in the U.S. are born with cleft and craniofacial differences.
The craniofacial team at CHKD sees 800 patients a year and performs 200 surgical procedures for patients with a cleft or craniofacial abnormality. The center is accredited by the ACPA, which requires a multi-disciplinary approach, including ear, nose and throat surgeons, neurosurgeons, plastic surgeons, counselors, speech therapists and dental and orthodontic specialists to care for patients with cleft and craniofacial conditions.
In August, the craniofacial team will be welcoming an oral and maxillofacial surgeon to its care team to treat its cleft and craniofacial patient population, and other children with disorders of the head, neck, face and jaw.
Cassie said she and her husband had looked at centers across the state, and felt like CHKD was the best fit for their son, even though it would take the family four hours to drive there.
Because of COVID-19 precautions, only Rhett’s parents were able to accompany him inside the hospital during surgery and his recovery.
But to their surprise, when they arrived at the hospital, at 5:45 a.m. on June 5, family members were gathered on the front lawn of the hospital to support them. Aunts, uncles, grandparents, siblings and cousins dressed in purple leis and “Cranio” T-shirts that said “Rhett Strong.”
“It was the longest day of my life and yet at the same time, it went so quickly,” Cassie said.
The group supported the Harmon family outside from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. for four days, until Rhett was released from the hospital.
“They were my village, my tribe,” added Cassie. “I was so comforted knowing they were there. They stayed there doing vigil through the weekend, and until he was discharged the following Monday.”
Rhett is now at home and fast on the road to recovery. His mother can’t say the same.
“He was back to being himself in two weeks,” Cassie said. “I don’t know if I’ve recovered yet, but he’s doing great.”
Rhett is scheduled for follow-up appointments in six months and a year. He will turn one in November.
“Now his head is big and beautiful and round,” said Cassie. “You’d never know he had anything done. He has proven to be quite the little warrior.”
Rhett Harmon is pictured, thumbnail photo, before surgery to correct a birth defect called “craniosynostosis,” in which the bones in his skull joined together too early, and, article photo, after his surgery. His surgery was performed at Norfolk’s Children’s Hospital of the King’s Daughters. July is National Cleft and Craniofacial Awareness and Prevention Month. Rhett is the son of Cassie and Layne Harmon of Covington. (Photos Courtesy Cassie Harmon)