At 14 years old, Kendall Stark’s athleticism shines through her gymnastics medals and trophies that sit proudly on her shelf.
Glancing at this display, it might be hard to believe that the same young girl, who can bend, flip and dismount off the uneven bars eight feet from the ground, was born with a condition where her liver protruded from her body.
Kendall’s mother, Kyra Stark, was just 24 weeks pregnant when she was told by a doctor in her hometown of Billings, Montana, that her baby would be born with a condition called giant omphalocele.
Omphalocele is a type of abdominal wall defect where the intestines or other organs grow outside of the baby’s body and is covered by the layers of the umbilical cord, which forms a sac around them. It can vary in size and babies born with giant omphalocele face the risk of lung disease caused by organs squeezing against the lungs.
“After spotting it in a routine ultrasound, my doctor seemed skeptical,” said Stark. “I underwent several tests to determine whether or not my baby would be born with other birth defects, and that made me worried. I was told there was a possibility I needed to deliver early because my baby might not live.”
Wanting a second opinion and knowing that this would not be a normal pregnancy, Stark made it her mission to seek out the best doctors in the region who would be able to deliver and care for her baby.
A special kind of birth
During Stark’s search, her mother who lived in Seattle at the time told her about Seattle Children’s. Stark decided to contact the hospital and eventually determined that Seattle was where she needed to be to get the expert care her baby needed immediately after birth.
At 38 weeks, Kendall was born on June 13 at University of Washington Medical Center.
“It was a relief knowing that the delivery went successfully, but I was shocked to see how enormous the protrusion of her liver was,” explains Stark.
Doctors moved Kendall to Seattle Children’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) where she was put on a ventilator to make sure that there would be no disturbances to her fragile abdomen. It was then that Kendall would undergo treatment for her omphalocele.
Paint and wait
Omphalocele affects 1 to 2 in 10,000 children. As a national pioneer in treating children with giant omphalocele, Seattle Children’s sees between six to 10 babies a year with this condition.
Dr. Robert Sawin, surgeon-in-chief at Seattle Children’s, has treated many children with varying sizes of omphalocele over the years, including Kendall’s.
“During that time, Seattle Children’s was one of very few pediatric hospitals that were taking a less aggressive surgical approach to treating giant omphalocele,” mentioned Sawin. “This approach was proven to be much safer.”
Shortly after Kendall was born, Sawin suggested the ‘paint and wait’ method for treating Kendall’s omphalocele. The method involved painting the omphalocele with silvadene, an antibiotic cream that would help skin grow over the thin membrane that covered Kendall’s exposed liver.
“After waiting for the skin to be thickly formed, an elastic bandage was wrapped over the sac which then gradually pushed the abdominal contents back into her belly,” explained Sawin.
The waiting period allowed the Starks to fly home to Billings for six weeks before returning to Seattle.
When Kendall was 17 months old, she underwent surgery to remove the new skin that formed over the membrane. The edges of the abdominal muscle were then pulled together and sutured up.
“The surgery was a success and her parents we’re thrilled,” said Sawin.
Finding her passion
After overcoming the challenging first few months of life, Kendall went on to be a happy, healthy and active baby.
“She was such an energetic kid,” said Stark. “I remember she would rather roll on her belly from place to place than crawl, which was so funny to me.”
Noticing that her daughter had an interest for vigorous activity, she decided to enroll 2-year-old Kendall into a ‘mommy and me’ gymnastics class.
That’s when Kendall discovered her passion for gymnastics.
“At first I was concerned about Kendall joining any sport that required strenuous activity,” said Stark. “But seeing her love of gymnastics was enough for me to support and encourage her to follow her passion.”
Kendall proceeded to compete in several gymnastics championships across the U.S. She most recently became the state champion for uneven bars in her age group.
“I tried other sports, but nothing was challenging enough,” said Kendall. “I love challenging myself, so when I started gymnastics, I knew it was the right sport for me.”
A surprise encounter and an awe-inspiring visit
Last year, Kendall was able to meet two important figures that helped shape the person she is today.
The first was a surprise encounter with Olympic gold medalist Simone Biles while Kendall was at a competition in Texas.
“It was a dream meeting her,” said Kendall. “She was so nice and willing to talk to her fans and take photos. She’s an inspiration.”
Later that year, Kendall was preparing to go to a weeklong gymnastics camp that would bring her to the city where she was born.
Knowing that her family would be spending some time in Seattle, Kendall’s mom decided to make a pit stop at Seattle Children’s. She wanted Kendall to meet the doctor who helped her become the healthy and active girl she is today.
“It was such a pleasure seeing Kendall and her parents after all these years,” said Sawin. “There’s a lot to be said about her parents — they raised her without limits and enabled her to do what they knew she was capable of doing. It’s truly awe-inspiring learning that Kendall is thriving as a young gymnast.”
Stark was thrilled to share the milestones and achievements that Kendall reached over the years during their visit with Sawin.
“I was so happy to see Dr. Sawin again. He still has that warmth about him that makes you feel at ease,” said Stark. “He’s very good at what he does and has such a kind soul.”
Kendall has high hopes for her future in gymnastics.
As a level 7 gymnast, she goes to the gym to practice three hours a day, four nights a week.
Although gymnastics consumes much of Kendall’s time, she continues to excel in school and is a straight-A student.
“I’m so proud of Kendall and all she has accomplished in school and gymnastics,” said Stark. “She’s always trying to challenge herself to achieve bigger and better things. I’m looking forward to seeing where the road takes her.”