All posts by Uncommon Heather

Imagine... All my life I've fancied myself an artist. Give me a pencil and I will sketch. Give me clay and I will shape it into something cool. Now I see that written word is much like working with clay or paint in that I can write, erase and re-write to convey my ideas and feelings, and hopefully, create a work of art.

Where it all began – The story of my birth.


It was a dark and stormy night…

No, just kidding.  It was a sweltering midsummer afternoon when my mother’s contractions began.  My father’s cousins had come over to swim in the pool that day and through the window my mother could hear them laughing and splashing as she lay on the bed.  She would have been out there with them, cooling off from the heat, but she hadn’t felt so good and needed to lie down.  When my father came home from work a couple of hours later, he would take her to the hospital where I would make my debut.

My birth was a greatly anticipated event.  Not only was I the first child for my parents, but I was the first grandchild and first great-grandchild for all parties involved.  Everyone was waiting with bated breath.  Because my mother was young and healthy and there were no known health issues in our family, she had not had any ultrasounds or prenatal testing that would have indicated anything was amiss.  They didn’t even know if I’d be a boy or a girl.

Labor and delivery went as expected and I came into the world at 11:44 pm that summer night.  It was immediately obvious that all was not “right” with baby me.  They allowed my mother to hold me for a few minutes before taking me away.  While a cleft lip and palate was not an unheard of birth defect, my “clawed” hands and feet, sparse hair and eyelashes were cause for concern.  The doctors wanted to examine me further to determine if I had missing or deformed internal organs or mental deficiency.

My mother was taken up to her room without me.  My father went home to share the news with Gram and his cousins who were waiting to hear.  My mother called her mother to let her know that I had arrived but that there were some unexpected complications.  No one would tell her anything, so she didn’t know what else could be wrong with me besides the obvious.

It would be a long, lonely night.  At some point not long after she had settled into her room, they brought in another woman who had just given birth.  She had her baby with her, and all night my mother could hear the mother and baby on the other side of the curtain, cooing and bonding with each other.  Meanwhile, she had no idea where I was or what was going on. It wasn’t until early the next morning that I was brought in and she could finally hold me again.

Later that morning a plastic surgeon came in to talk to them about cleft lip and palate. The doctor was old and what he said was blunt.  “Your daughter will never look normal.  The sooner you accept that, the better.”   Despite this harsh diagnosis, he was the one who referred my parents to the cleft team at St. Christopher’s, and the skilled hands of Dr. Hulnick.  It was also sometime that morning that someone came in with pamphlets from the local AboutFace organization, which was a support group for people with various facial deformities.

Within the first week of my life, my parents took me to see the cleft team at St. Christopher’s, which was associated with Temple University.  This would be the first of many times I’d endure a full day of examinations.  The team made my first palatal obturator – which was an acrylic plate that fit across the roof of my mouth and allowed me to drink without aspirating.   (More on all this in a future post!)

Of course I don’t remember any of this.  I had to call my mom and asked her for the details.  Growing up, I’d always known basic facts about my birth, like how I’d been born at 11:44 pm, and that I surprised everybody with my birth defects, but I never really asked my mom how she felt.  How anyone felt.  I mean, was there some level of disappointment that a perfect child was not produced?

She said she remembers feeling fearful and overwhelmed.  She wondered how she would be able to provide everything I needed.  There was a lot of uncertainty about what my diagnosis meant, but there was such joy at my arrival that it outweighed any negativity.  Nana, (my maternal grandmother) was really supportive.  She was a nurse, so she was battle-hardened when it came to medical stuff.  She came up from Maryland and stayed with us for a week after I was born.  My other grandmother, (Gram), lived with us (technically, we lived with HER, but I didn’t realize that until I was much older), so  she was there every day and helped to hold me down while my mom applied my obturator and cleaned the junk out of my nose.

I asked my mom if she ever felt uncomfortable taking me out in public before my lip repair.  She said that she wanted people to see me and that there was nothing to hide.  She told Gram, “let people look if they want to look!”  They took me to the mall, to the grocery store, the bank – everywhere.  People would sometimes ask if I had been in an accident or if I’d gotten hurt.  She thinks it was good for her to talk about it.  Only once does she remember losing her cool.  While waiting in line for a teller at the bank, she noticed a man who would not stop staring at me.  He never said anything, he just stared.  Finally she snapped at him “Would you like to take a picture?”

It was interesting talking to my mom about this.  She began to recall things she had forgotten.  As we talked, I realized that she might not be remembering everything with exact accuracy.  For example, she recalls being told about the NFED soon after I was born.  However, the NFED wasn’t started until 1981.  She probably found out about it through a doctor or counselor at a hospital when I was still quite young.

I have some of the records from my birth.  No pictures, but here is my Discharge report.  I think the use of the term “clawed hands” makes it sound like I was a gryphon or something.  Which is actually kind of cool.

Dr. Hulnick


My first plastic surgeon was Dr. Hulnick at St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children.  I had 5 surgeries with him, the first when I was barely 3 months old and the last when I was 6.  I don’t remember what he looked like, but I do remember him being a big part of my early life.  I was just shy of 9 years old when he died.  My mom wept and wondered out loud what were we going we do?  I had no idea at the time – in fact, I have only recently realized – just what amazing work Dr. Hulnick did.  I am grateful that he was my doctor and did such beautiful work on my lip and palate repairs.

While doing research for this blog, I came across his obituary, which I’ve posted below.  My heart swells to read about what a kind and caring man he was, and I know I was fortunate to have him work on me.

Stuart Hulnick, 50, Plastic Surgeon

By Henry Goldman, Inquirer Staff Writer

June 16, 1989

Stuart J. Hulnick, 50, director and founder of the Burn Center of St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children and chief of its plastic-surgery section, died of leukemia Wednesday at his home in Lafayette Hill.

A pediatric burn-care specialist and plastic surgeon, Dr. Hulnick became nationally known for his writings on reconstructive microsurgery, burn care and treatment of children born with cleft palates.

Among his colleagues in Philadelphia, he developed a reputation as a tireless surgeon who worked long hours because of his commitment to caring for suffering children.

“He could have made a fortune as a cosmetic surgeon, but went ahead and did burns, the most difficult work,” said Myles G. Turtz, chief executive officer of the corporation that owns St. Christopher’s.

Dr. Hulnick’s friends remembered him as a man who enjoyed simple pleasures in life and took great pride in his wife and two children.

Born in Staten Island, N.Y., Dr. Hulnick studied American literature at Princeton University before entering the University of Rochester Medical School. He interrupted his medical residency at Strong Memorial Hospital there to serve in the Air Force from 1965 to 1967. He then returned to Rochester, where he was a senior resident and later the chief surgical resident at Genesee Hospital.

He came to Temple University Health Sciences Center in 1970 and spent two years there as a surgical resident before joining the medical staff at St. Christopher’s. In 1978, he became chief of plastic surgery and he founded the burn center – the only such children’s unit between Washington and Boston.

Yesterday, the hospital’s executive director, Calvin Bland, said the burn center would be named after Dr. Hulnick.

For more than a decade he served on St. Christopher’s board of managers and on the board of trustees of the Burn Foundation of the Delaware Valley. He remained in those positions until his death.

A member of the American Society of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgeons, Dr. Hulnick taught plastic surgery at Temple University Health Sciences Center and was on the medical staff of Chestnut Hill Hospital.

“I’ve never seen anyone love kids, and love kids who have had the horror and devastation of burns, as Stu Hulnick did,” said William H. Weintraub, who was recruited by Dr. Hulnick more than 10 years ago as the hospital’s chief of surgery.

“He had an unbelievable amount of commitment to children who had suffered the disfigurement of burns. I’m not sure he’s replaceable.”

He was “a straight shooter, a gifted surgeon and a brilliant guy,” said Turtz, who heads the nonprofit corporation that owns St. Christopher’s and two other hospitals.

Burn treatment for children, Turtz said, “is probably the most difficult job you can do, requiring extraordinary care and technique and constant attention.”

“He was a tremendous amount of fun, and he also had the capacity to be very silly,” said Diane Williams, who is director of nursing at Valley Forge Medical Center and a longtime friend of the Hulnick family.

Noting that a memorial service has been scheduled for a dining room at St. Christopher’s, Williams said, “He loved food and he disliked pretension, so it’s appropriate that a memorial service be held for him in the hospital cafeteria. He would love that.”

In addition to his work with burn victims, Dr. Hulnick ran a unit for children who had been born with cleft lips and palates. The clinic was staffed with oral surgeons and speech therapists.

Dr. Hulnick’s third major involvement was as a plastic surgeon for children who were trauma victims. St. Christopher’s has the largest trauma unit for children in the region.

“The kids would start out disfigured and end up beautiful by the time he was finished,” said Weintraub.

Dr. Hulnick excelled in his hobbies as well – needlepoint, gardening, cooking, making furniture by hand, and listening to classical music and opera.

Survivors include his wife, Virginia Cole Hulnick; two children, Lauren and Adam; a brother, and his mother, Martha.

Friends and family may attend a memorial service at 2 p.m. Wednesday in the cafeteria of St. Christopher Hospital’s Morris Pavilion, 2600 N. Lawrence St. Interment will be private.

Laughter… Better than Medicine


It is a crisp October night in 1984. I’m sitting at the kitchen table watching my mother struggle to cut shapes into a pumpkin, her brow furrowed in concentration. The mouth of this Jack-O’Lantern is lined with zig-zagging teeth and as Mommy slides the knife upward, it cuts through the pumpkin flesh and up into the nose-triangle. “Dammit”, she murmurs under her breath. She pulls the knife out and resumes cutting from another point. Moments later, on another upward cut, the knife slips and a chunk of pumpkin clatters to the table. Mommy lets out an exasperated sigh and declares, “Well, now the pumpkin has a cleft lip, just like you!”

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Continue reading Laughter… Better than Medicine

Souvenirs You Never Lose


Every once in a while I think of that Goo Goo Dolls song, ‘Name’, which has the line “Scars are souvenirs you never lose The past is never far.” It brings to mind superficial scars, like the crescent shaped scar on my forearm, where our dog Tasha bit me when I tried to take a chicken bone from her. It usually takes a moment or two of deeper thinking before I remember how many scars I have.

Continue reading Souvenirs You Never Lose

The first post…


This blog has existed for many years in my mind’s eye. I have been putting it off for one reason or another, but the biggest reason is that I am hesitant to open myself up to criticism and judgement when it comes to something so personal. So bear with me as I slowly peel back my layers and release these thoughts and feelings I’ve been holding onto for years.

Growing up “different” isn’t easy for anyone, of course. It’s a basic human need to feel accepted and part of a group. When you start out your social life being an outsider, you quickly learn how to change yourself and to hide the qualities that make you different. For me, since my appearance was so unique among my peers, one of the ways I adapted at school was to keep as quiet and unobtrusive as possible.

It’s hard to be a wallflower when your very appearance makes you stand out in a crowd, but in every other aspect, I tried to fade into the background as much as humanly possible. This worked as far as keeping bullies and meanies at bay – after all, what kind of jerk goes out of their way to pick on the girl who always has her nose in a book and never makes eye contact with anyone? (Ok, some jerks DID bully me, but quickly tired of it since they got no reaction from me.)

The downside of always keeping my nose in a book and my head in the clouds was that I didn’t enjoy school much, or make many friends (I must give a shout-out to the kind souls like Emilee, Chrissie, Jessica, and Marie, to name a few, who reached out and included me.) I was also fortunate to have several friends outside of school, especially my two best friends Chrissy and Joanna, without whom I can not imagine my childhood days.

Now, 20+ years after my school days, I have grown more confident, more outspoken and less concerned with “fitting in” and being “normal.” After all, they say normal is boring. Despite this, I still have days of wishing I could just hide under the covers and not have to go out in the big scary world. I am still somewhat socially awkward, though I now embrace this about myself. It’s me, socially awkward girl! I’ve overcome a lot of obstacles, but there continue to be challenges ahead. I see a bright future for myself and know that I can continue to work through my “issues” and hopefully help others work through theirs.