by Lisa Cooper
When Loyola parent and St. Joseph parishioner Dr. Celso Palmieri saw the face of Melyssa Delgado Braga while looking through online publications from his native country, Brazil, he felt compelled to get involved. Braga’s family posted a plea seeking help to get their daughter to America, where she could find treatment for a large, rare facial tumor. Dr. Palmieri, associate professor of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery at LSU Health Shreveport, took a screen shot of Melyssa and sent it immediately to his colleague and department chairman, G.E. Ghali, DDS, MD, FACS, who said right away that they could help the little girl. Dr. Ghali then contacted Willis-Knighton Health System seeking help to support the effort, and the health system agreed to provide housing for the family and to underwrite the cost of the hospital stay.
Within an hour, Palmieri found the Bragas on Facebook, and told them the good news. In the course of his correspondence with them, Palmieri discovered that the family had been able to raise enough money through donations to cover their travel expenses. He also discovered an underbelly of predators who sought to take advantage of the family. “The family had people contacting them, offering their help if they could have control of the money,” Palmieri stated. From the time of his initial communication with the Bragas, he sent them links to the LSU Health Shreveport website and to his department in hopes of assuring them of his and Dr. Ghali’s credibility and sincerity. It was on the night before the Bragas were to arrive in Shreveport, that Palmieri discovered something surprising. Speaking of Caroline, Melyssa’s mom, he said, “She called the night before we were to pick them up from the airport and asked for a picture of me. I realized she had never opened the links I sent.” When he asked her about why she hadn’t followed up on the information he provided, Caroline said that she never felt a need to. She said she had a peace about Palmieri’s offer and trusted God through the entire process.
Once in surgery, Palmieri served as Ghali’s assistant in removing what turned out to be a five-pound myxoma tumor from the jaw of three-year-old Melyssa. When asked about the possibility of the tumor’s returning, Palmieri said he is confident that there is “almost no chance” of that. Melyssa’s surgery was a great success, but she still has some time ahead of her before she is fully recovered. After having been relieved of such an enormous weight, Melyssa is having to learn to balance differently so that she can walk fluidly again. She has a titanium plate reconstructing her mandible now, so she will have to have more surgeries in the future to replace the plate, and at the end, she will need a bone graft to reconstruct the mandible. She will also need to have implants placed so she can have teeth. “At this point,” says Palmieri, “chewing and eating is a challenge for her as well, since she has no teeth in the right side of the mandible, but she is recovering well and finding her way to eat.”
Although this story, which has now been covered across the globe, has pushed Palmieri and Ghali into the world-wide spotlight, Palmieri says it was the compassion he had for Melyssa the moment he saw her that prompted him to work to meet an immediate need. He never expected such notoriety. Sharing about how his faith prompted him to act on Melyssa’s behalf, Palmieri acknowledged that he has been “blessed with a gift and blessed to have received an excellent education and experience in Brazil, at Parkland Hospital in Dallas and here at LSU Health in Shreveport. I felt I needed to give something back.” For the Palmieris, giving back has been a family affair. The Palmieri family went together to meet the Bragas at the airport, and Palmieri’s wife Ingrid, a computer analyst, would spend time she had away from work serving the Bragas and helping to make the family feel at home here. “Because they did not have a car here, [Ingrid] would drive them to the grocery store or take them to run errands. We also had the help of many great friends who welcomed the Bragas with us and helped them shop and run errands as well,” says Palmieri.
Noting the effect his involvement has had on his children, Palmieri says, “It’s important to me that my children see my faith through my actions and not just through my words.” Palmieri’s son, Loyola junior, Felipe spent last summer putting this principle into practice as a volunteer at an MDA camp, where he served as the daily caretaker for a camper with MD. The Palmieris are intentional about teaching their children the importance of living their faith. “Giving money is easy compared to being involved,” says Palmieri, “but your time and attention are what people need most.”
When it comes to living his faith, Palmieri takes a practical approach. “I don’t worry about changing the world. I probably won’t,” he says, “but if I can change the life of just one person, I have lived my faith well.”