When 19-year-old Joey Penko graduated from Copley High School in May, family and friends couldn’t wait to celebrate with him – including his extended family at Akron Children’s Hospital.
Joey has been a patient at Akron Children’s Craniofacial Center since he was an infant. Born with a life-threatening craniofacial condition, it took a multidisciplinary team of pediatricians, plastic surgeons, speech pathologists, orthodontists and more to help Joey thrive from infancy to adolescence.
Today Joey is happy and healthy, and he loves playing outside with his dog, Duke.
Bringing hope to a desperate situation
Joey was born with a condition called Pierre Robin Sequence. A cleft palate, an underdeveloped jaw and an obstructed airway, combined with complications from being born 6 weeks early, made it nearly impossible for him to breathe, and he was rapidly losing weight.
The Penkos took Joey to Akron Children’s Craniofacial Center. James Lehman Jr., MD, the now-retired division director and co-founder of the center, uncovered the cause of Joey’s complications straightaway and admitted him to the pediatric intensive care unit (PICU).
That day marked the beginning of a 19-year journey for Joey and his family, one that required numerous surgeries to correct his lower jaw, a tracheostomy to help him breathe, as well as a feeding tube placed in his stomach.
“When Joey’s tracheostomy tube was removed before his second birthday, we had a huge party,” says Susan Penko, Joey’s mom. “Our family and friends were there, as were many hospital staff members. It was a celebration for all of us.”
Another challenge on Joey’s journey was helping him to talk and eat. With his condition, he never progressed through any “babbling” stages or learned how to drink through a bottle. The Penkos worked with Akron Children’s speech pathologists to overcome speech impairments and help him learn how to eat and like food.
The Penko family: (from left) Sue, Mandy, Joey and Joe.
Continuing his journey
Today, Joey is enjoying life after high school. He loves working outside and exercising with his dog, Duke. He also volunteers at Victory Gallop Therapeutic Equestrian Center, where he took riding lessons for 10 years.
Akron Children’s remains an important part of Joey’s life. He still maintains yearly checkups at the hospital with his team of physicians, including Ananth Murthy, MD, FACS, director of plastic and reconstructive surgery and medical director of the Craniofacial Center.
“Nineteen years ago, the staff at Akron Children’s was strangers to us,” says Joe. “Today, they’re some of our closest friends – they’re our heroes.”