This exceptional Medical Assisting student spoke to her class about her daughter’s medical struggles and success
Maria Calle is a unique Salter College student. She comes from the island of St. Croix, and her daughter Jaheema Cole is also a student in the Medical Assisting program. But Maria is also a truly exceptional mother, who has spent more than a decade helping her daughter Kissee Richards with a serious medical condition caused by a hemangioma.
On February 21, Maria did a PowerPoint presentation to her Anatomy & Physiology class on the differences between a hemangioma and a vascular malformation. A hemangioma, she explains, is a benign tumor that consists of extra blood vessels in a localized area of the body. Kissee, now 12 years old, was diagnosed with this condition when she was a newborn, and it affected her lower lip, chin, tongue, gums, and the front of her neck. Kissee was on school vacation the week her mother was making the presentation at Salter College, so she came to the class to meet everyone.
Diagnosis at an early age
“When Kissee was born, I noticed she had a strawberry mark on the left side of her ear,” Maria says. “I thought it was a birthmark, and was not aware that it could be something more serious. About a week later I noticed her lips were very red—like she was wearing lipstick. Then her lip started growing very fast, and her chin did as well.”
Maria says that Kissee began to develop infections and a high fever. Maria rushed her to a local hospital, because Kissee was having trouble taking a bottle, as well as breathing and sleeping. “The dermatologist immediately diagnosed her as having a hemangioma, but because we were in the Virgin Islands, they told me to take her to a bigger hospital off the island immediately—that it was a matter of life and death.”
The process of finding treatment
Maria began by taking Kissee to Puerto Rico, where doctors told Maria that, because the tumor was growing quickly, Kissee might need additional treatment and surgery. They also advised her to go to the United States. So, in 2005, when Kissee was 6 weeks old, Maria took her to Worcester, MA, because she had family there. “It was my only option,” Maria said. “My cousin picked us up at the airport and took us directly to the hospital that same day.”
Those doctors treated Kissee, including a dermatologist and an ENT (ear, nose, and throat) specialist. This kind of condition can be highly dangerous, Maria says, because it can spread to the brain or the liver. Fortunately, this had not happened in Kissee’s case. They gave her oral steroids to try to shrink the tumor. “This helped a little,” Maria says, but they also recommended laser surgery when she was a bit older. However, two different hospitals later refused to perform plastic surgery on Kissee, because they felt it would be too risky.
Finally, her dermatologist recommended a friend at Boston Children’s Hospital, who agreed to do the surgery, which Kissee underwent when she was 3 years old. “Dr. Greene was a young doctor, and he did an amazing job,” Maria says. “He did good work on her chin, and made it possible for her to close her lips.”
At this same time, in 2008, Maria had been interested in starting the Medical Assisting program at Salter College, but because of Kissee’s surgery she had to drop out so she could take care of her daughter. “But I knew I would come back,” Maria says.
Since then Kissee has had several other surgeries. “In between there were many trips to the emergency room,” Maria says, “because she was always getting infections.” This condition caused a lot of bleeding from her lip and chin, because the tissue was so delicate and sensitive, and Kissee’s clothes would often be stained with blood.
“It really took a lot of patience and strength, but I did what was necessary to save Kissee’s life,” Maria says. “I will always feel very protective of her.” Maria was excited to have the chance to enroll in the Medical Assisting program again in 2017, having been inspired when she came to campus with her daughter Jaheema.
The support of family and community
Jaheema has always been very supportive of her little sister. “I was 8 when Kissee was diagnosed, and we were roomies,” Jaheema says. “I was always watching her, making sure she slept okay, and whenever I noticed anything wrong I would call my mom. Kissee and I were like best friends, and I never wanted to be separated from her for a long time.”
Kissee underwent some challenges with other children from the time she was in preschool. “They didn’t understand why she was drooling and wearing a bib, so they would say mean things about how she looked,” Maria says. “But once they came to understand that she had a medical condition, they became her best friend and supported her.”
An opportunity for learning
One of the big differences between hemangioma and a vascular malformation, Maria told her class, is that a hemangioma can go away on its own—even though Kissee’s did not and had to be treated. “A vascular malformation never goes away,” Maria says, “and you can get it on any part of your body. It’s even more dangerous than a hemangioma and can be fatal because it can affect the brain.”
On the day of the presentation, Maria’s classmates were able to see how well Kissee is doing. “We showed pictures of her when she was a baby and a toddler, and they were amazed to see the difference,” says Maria. Today Kissee is a healthy middle-school student who likes learning new things. “I like studying and watching shows about doctors, because I want to be a doctor when I grow up,” she says.
“All the students in my class appreciated hearing Kissee’s story,” says instructor Dr. Phillip Wong. “The family’s visit to class enhanced their learning—it created a different perspective on how serious the condition can be.” When Maria finished her presentation, the entire class gave the three of them a standing ovation. It was a unique opportunity for learning that grew out of this family’s inspiring story.
This post is part of the Salter College weekly blog. Contact us today to learn more about our various career training programs, or to request more information. Call our West Boylston campus at (774) 261-1500 to schedule a visit. We look forward to hearing from you!