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January 05, 2018 03:49 PM

Valeka Riegel, of Oak Harbor, Ohio, gave birth to little Zakary on Dec. 29, 2016. About four months later, she got to see her baby’s eyes for the first time.

Zakary, now 1, was born with a large sac covering his face. The growth covered his eyes and nose, leaving only a small part of his mouth visible, Riegel wrote in a letter to her son for Cincinnati Children’s Hospital. The sac was so heavy that it began crushing his nasal cavities, and doctors had to create a sling to lift the sac off the baby’s mouth and nose.

“I cried, became angered, fearful and resentful of God,” Riegel, 46, wrote. “I could not see your face, only a large protrusion and tiny little lips — no eyes, no nose, no eyelashes. Yet, you were still beautiful to me.”

Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center

During Riegle’s fifth month of pregnancy, doctors diagnosed Zakary with an encephalocele, a rare birth defect in which brain tissue escapes the skull and collects in a sac between the eyes. A team of 22 doctors delivered Zakary via Caesarean section.

For the first few months of his life, Zakary was too small to undergo the nine-hour surgery needed to remove the growth. But, in April 2017, doctors successfully removed the sac, repaired the gap and reconstructed the little boy’s face.

Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center
Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center

“I just cried because I didn’t know he had such beautiful long eyelashes and big brown eyes,” Riegel told Today. “They were perfect on both sides.”

Riegel said she “never in a million years thought we would be here a year later.” She described her son’s face as “amazing,” noting that she saw his face in its entirety for the first time when the surgery was completed.

Zakary with mother Valeka Riegel

Still, she says, the change has taken some getting used to.

“I had come to fall in love with this little boy with this big ball on his face,” she told Today. “He always played with it … the first couple of days, he kept swatting at his face, like, ‘Wait a second, I’m not seeing it; I’m not feeling it.’ “

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