Janis Melissa Luque had all but given up on doctors. As a toddler in her native Bogotá, Colombia, she swallowed a drain cleaner known as Diablo Rojo (Red Devil) that severely damaged her mouth, her esophagus, and her psyche. Twenty-seven years later, even after 50 surgeries, she could barely open her mouth. Eating was a struggle, and the scarring made her feel self-conscious and isolated. “When people see you, the first thing they look at is your face,” says Luque, 29, who now lives in Passaic, New Jersey, with her mother and sister.
Frustrated by the results of past procedures, some of which had exacerbated the internal scarring, Luque was reluctant to pursue further interventions. Then one day last year she happened upon a television news show chronicling the face transplant performed on Cameron Underwood by Eduardo D. Rodriguez, MD, DDS, the Helen L. Kimmel Professor of Reconstructive Plastic Surgery and chair of the Hansjörg Wyss Department of Plastic Surgery at NYU Langone. Seeing the extraordinary complexity of Underwood’s case, Luque thought, “Maybe Dr. Rodriguez can help me, too.”
When Luque met Dr. Rodriguez this spring, he laid out an ambitious surgical plan that quickly won her confidence. But without health insurance, and with only a modest income from a part-time job as a dental technician, she doubted she could afford his help. “They came to our clinic and didn’t ask for anything,” recalls Dr. Rodriguez. “Her mother just said, ‘She doesn’t have insurance, but we will do whatever it takes to help her.’”
In that same spirit, Dr. Rodriguez was thrilled to share some good news. Thanks to a recent gift of $15.1 million from philanthropist Hansjörg Wyss—a longstanding benefactor of Dr. Rodriguez’s pioneering department—Luque’s financial hardship would not derail her care. In April, NYU Langone Health used the gift to establish the historic Hansjörg Wyss Charity Care Fund, one of the few programs of its kind dedicated to providing the highest-quality reconstructive plastic surgery care to underserved, underinsured, and uninsured adults and children. “When you are able to make a lot of money, by luck and with the help of others, I believe you have a duty to give back,” says Wyss.
Luque is set to become the first patient to benefit from the fund, as Dr. Rodriguez plans to perform a multitiered reconstructive procedure designed to restore mobility to her face. Over 12 hours, he will operate on the lower jaw to make it easier for Luque to open her mouth. He will remove scar tissue from the internal lining of her left cheek, filling the void with tissue from her left arm. Then, he will connect blood vessels from the graft using microsurgical techniques before repairing her forearm with a second graft taken from her groin.
Patients who require treatment for congenital deformities or those caused by trauma, cancer, or illness are eligible to apply for the fund, which supports travel and accommodations as well as hospital stays, surgeries, and inpatient and outpatient care. Clinicians and administrators evaluate each case individually based on how the patient might benefit and their financial circumstances.
In Luque’s case, the approval process was swift. And now, after years of struggle, she will finally receive the care she has been waiting for nearly her entire life. “I’ve lived with this since age 2,” she says, “and I’ve never found the right treatment, until now.”