Skip to main content

Children with unmet medical needs get a Fresh Start

Written By | May 28, 2020
Fresh Start patient Zulema is one of the 8,100 children treated at no cost. Photo: Courtesy Fresh Start

Zulema Gillett, age 20, is a Fresh Start success story. Photo: Courtesy Fresh Start

SAN DIEGO: As the nation’s hospitals found themselves overwhelmed by the coronavirus pandemic, operating rooms remained dark as elective surgeries were canceled until further notice. An estimated 28 million elective surgeries have been postponed during the COVID-19 pandemic and response worldwide, according to a study published in the British Journal of Surgery. In the U.S., this is as much as 65 percent of all surgical procedures. But the need for surgery didn’t disappear, especially for disadvantaged children and teens with physical deformities.  Fresh Start Surgical Gifts, a Carlsbad, California based global nonprofit organization providing charitable surgery and medical care, has pressed forward with its plans to provide its next round of surgeries in July 2020.

Applications are currently being accepted at the organization’s website by candidates and their families who can benefit from reconstructive surgery but cannot access it or afford it.

“We want to give those in need a medical opportunity that in many cases is life-changing,” said Michelle Pius, Fresh Start Surgical Gifts Chief Development Officer. “In these uncertain and scary times, we want to put the word out we want to encourage applications, so we can start the review and approval process. Once we are able to re-start surgery weekends, we can hit the ground running to help these precious children.”

Americans pledge to help children worldwide

Fresh Start patient ‘Edgar’ (second from left) after surgery to correct a deformed jaw with physician Dr. Grant McGann (far right) who performed his restorative surgery. Photo: Fresh Start

Fresh Start was founded by late San Diego plastic surgeon Dr. Dennis Nigro, who traveled to remote areas of the world and saw the poor conditions and needs of children with physical deformities easily corrected back in the U.S. He began bringing children to his office for help. In 1991, Dr. Nigro founded Fresh Start Surgical Gifts to expand the ability to provide charitable surgeries for more children. In 2009, the Fresh Start Clinic opened at Rady Children’s Hospital in San Diego, allowing treatment of more complex conditions and accommodation of more patients into the program.

Starting in 2014, the Fresh Start Caring for Kids Foundation began helping to expand fundraising and hosting surgery weekends at the University of Chicago Medical Center. Fresh Start hopes to expand to more branches nationwide in the coming years.

When a patient is accepted into the program, Fresh Start commits to long-term, comprehensive reconstructive surgery and care. It hosts six surgery weekends annually, where volunteer medical professionals perform the procedures. Restorative and orthodontic dental work is also available through dental clinics for children with cleft lip or palate issues, as well as basic dental care.

Edgar before and after his facial surgery. Photos: Fresh Start

Zulema Gillett, age 20, is a recipient of Fresh Start. A resident of Temecula, California, Gillett was born with Goldenhar syndrome, a congenital defect causing the incomplete development of the ear, nose, soft palate, lip and jaw, usually on one side of the body. Gillett has been a Fresh Start patient for the past four years. She says she’s been able to build her self-confidence thanks to the surgeries she’s received.

“My self-esteem has improved so much thanks to Fresh Start, it has made me feel better about myself,” said Gillett. “It has allowed me to come out of my shell. At the moment I am going to college to become a dental assistant. I want to become a dental assistant because I want to be able to help other kids just like I am being helped.”

New patients being accepted for July 2020

Long term Fresh Start patient ‘Edgar’ has gone through multiple surgeries for his cleft palate, including a bone graft to his palate, and lip reconstruction.  In January, Dr. Grant McGann, a highly regarded oral surgeon, performed Le Fort surgery to correct Edgar’s protruding jaw. The results are dramatic, and Edgar is truly grateful for his beautiful new profile.

Edgar will continue as a patient, no matter how long it takes until the best possible outcome is achieved. That is the Fresh Start promise for every patient it serves.

In 1992, President George H.W. Bush recognized Fresh Start as a “Point of Light.” President Bill Clinton presented Fresh Start with the Volunteer Action Award in 1993. Fresh Start meets the 20 “Standards for Charity Accountability,” as determined by the Better Business Bureau. Thanks to the Fresh Start Surgical Gifts Foundation, one hundred percent of monetary contributions go directly to medical programs.

Volunteers and donations are the engine of Fresh Start Surgical Gifts. From the free use of operating facilities, such as the partnership with Rady Children’s Hospital San Diego to the doctors and nurses giving of their time and expertise, they all come together to help carry out their mission and help each child.

Since Fresh Start’s inception, over 8,100 children have received no-cost charity surgery and medical care valued at over $42 million with a volunteer base of about 500 people annually.

Since Fresh Start’s inception, over 8,100 children have received no-cost charity surgery and medical care valued at over $42 million with a volunteer base of about 500 people annually.

To submit an application for a child in medical need, donate, and learn more about Fresh Start Surgical Gifts, please visit

READ MORE: American colleges and universities: will yours be open for the fall semester?


Gayle Falkenthal

Gayle Lynn Falkenthal, MS, APR, is President of the Falcon Valley Group, a San Diego based communications consulting firm. Falkenthal is a veteran award-winning broadcast and print journalist, editor, producer, talk host and commentator. She is an instructor at National University in San Diego, and previously taught in the School of Journalism & Media Studies at San Diego State University.