Danielle Zanyk was born healthy and her needs were basic: love, nourishment, security.
That changed within two months as a large hemangioma began to form on the left side of her face. The tumor, though benign, was disfiguring.
“I had nine major surgeries, and fix-ups in between. The last one I had was this one, here,” Danielle says, pointing to a lacy crisscross of scars on her cheek. “They had to go inside my mouth. I’m pretty much used to it.”
The tumor and the surgeries are just a small part of the turmoil and challenges Danielle has faced. The 14-year-old has had to cope with a drug-addicted mother, an absent father and homelessness. But she is slowly mending the torn fragments of her life, bolstered by the love of her foster family, the Valentis, and the kindness of a local plastic surgeon, Dr. Andre Renard. As her facial scars shrink and fade, Danielle holds tightly to the hope of healing — her face, her future, her family.
Growing up quickly
Danielle and her little brother, Sean, lived for a time at the Salvation Army with their mother, Nicole Felicetta.
“Mom had a drug problem. It definitely altered us — the way we acted — like being happy and stuff like that,” Danielle recalls. “She was gone every night and fighting with my stepdad. We tried to ignore it and just went to our room.”
One day the Salvation Army’s Family Lodge manager, Joanelle Greubel, told Nicole about a school called Agape Corner. Greubel urged Nicole to leave the children with the Valentis, who run the school, where they would be provided with care and an education while she sought help in a rehabilitation program.
Almost overnight, Danielle and Sean became part of a large family.
“They fell right into the mix,” said Marko Valenti.
Marko and Elaine Valenti are no parental novices; they have six children of their own, ranging in age from 3 to 22. The former pastor and his wife worked with children for two years at a school in Durham, S.C., and pastored a church in Bradenton for a decade. Danielle and her brother, Sean, were the Valentis’ first two foster children, soon joined by three others.
“We wanted to be able to pull the kids out of the inner city and get them away from that environment, away from gangs. In Durham, we would sit on the porch and hear guns going off,” says Elaine Valenti.
On the Valentis’ 12-acre property in East Manatee, the only sounds are of cows mooing, chickens clucking, and the occasional “woof” of two sleepy dogs, Luke and Lady.
Danielle has spent five years with the Valentis, who teach classes in their own little schoolhouse on the property. Lined up against one wall, cubby-hole desks are filled with Valentis and foster children working at their own pace as Luke and Lady snore on the floor.
“I feel like her (Danielle’s) mother. We’ve been through a lot together, ups and downs, some disappointments. She’s one of my kids,” said Elaine.
Healing the scars
Danielle’s life continues to change.
Felicetta is making strides at getting her life in order and has transitioned from weekend visits with her children to having them home full time. The children still attend school with the Valentis, allowing everyone involved time for adjustment as Nicole gets re-accustomed to juggling raising children and a full-time job.
All the while, Danielle’s scars are slowly shrinking through the careful work of Dr. Andre Renard. The doctor has performed two surgeries in the hospital and several scar reductions in his office pro bono. The silver-haired doctor scoffs when asked about the donation of his time and expertise.
“I’m not unique in that respect,” Renard says, pointing out the nine surgeries performed on Danielle for free by a Tampa surgeon before Renard took her on as a patient.
At her most recent office appointment for a scar reduction, Danielle’s feet, encased in blue Converse sneakers, shook uncontrollably after a large shot of lidocaine with epinepherine was administered to numb her face. Renard, bent over the teen, made a cut into a portion of the scar outlined in purple marker.
“I can hear my skin cutting; I can feel it, but it doesn’t hurt,” Danielle said as each meticulous cut brought her closer to restoring her face.
Renard remains cautious about the end result, which should be completed in about a year.
“It’s a work in progress. The final result will be better,” Renard said. “This is a worthy challenge.”
Manatee Memorial Hospital and the anesthesia department also donated services to enable Renard’s two previous surgeries.
As Renard began to close the teardrop-shaped wound with sutures, a nurse rubbed Danielle’s arm. “Your hands are cold!” said Danielle as the nurse urged her to breathe in through her nose, out through her mouth.
“I’m closing now,” said Renard, and Danielle’s fingers, adorned with polish of many colors, relaxed their grip on the treatment chair.
“These stitches need to come out in 10 days,” advised Renard.
“That would be a Saturday,” quipped Danielle.
“Then I guess you can take them out yourself,” joked the doctor.
Moments later, Danielle, a bit woozy, sat up and gently probed the large bandage on her face. Out in the waiting room, Elaine waited to take Danielle back to the Valentis. From there, Felicetta will pick Danielle and Sean on her way home from work.
“She’s a tough cookie,” Felicetta said of her daughter.
While life is not perfect for Danielle, she’s making strides toward normalcy with the kindness and love of those around her.
In Dr. Renard’s words: “It’s a work in progress.”