Janet and Philomena Sylva (© AP Images)
Janet Sylva, left, and her mother, Philomena, during a press conference in New York after surgeons removed a tumor the size of a cantaloupe that had been growing in the girl's mouth (© AP Images)

Twelve-year-old Janet Sylva of The Gambia wants to be a doctor when she grows up, she says with a broad grin — one that surgeons in New York gave back to her after removing from her mouth one of the largest tumors they’d ever seen.

The benign tumor weighed 2.7 kilograms and was about the size of a cantaloupe. It prevented Janet from eating, and her breathing had become so difficult that doctors were afraid she might die within a year if nothing were done.

“It made her a prisoner in her own body,” said Dr. David Hoffman, a Staten Island surgeon who became aware of Janet’s plight in 2016 after doctors in the neighboring west African nation of Senegal reached out to international health groups for assistance. She had stopped going to school and wore a scarf around her face to hide the massive tumor.

Hoffman coordinated with the nonprofit Global Medical Relief Fund and a team of volunteer surgeons and other medical staff members at Cohen Children’s Medical Center — part of North Shore University Hospital — to arrange for Janet to have the surgery, which was performed for free in January.

Using virtual modeling

The operation not only involved removing the tumor, but also rebuilding Janet’s jaw by using part of a bone from her leg. The medical team knew they had to get it right the first time because Janet and her mother, Philomena, would be in the U.S. for only a short time, said Dr. Armen Kasabian, chief of plastic surgery at North Shore University Hospital, who led the team.

He and Hoffman said they employed 3-D imaging to build models of the child’s mouth, including the tumor, and were able to use the virtual modeling techniques to practice for the procedure before the actual 12-hour surgery took place January 16.

Before heading home, the pair returned to Cohen Children’s Medical Center to thank the medical staff.

“I’m very happy and grateful because I have my daughter back,” Philomena Sylva said through an interpreter who spoke their native language of Wolof.

Janet smiled and said the scarf she had worn to hide her face has been thrown away.