DALLAS -- A little girl’s journey from China to North Texas started a decade ago, thanks to the compassion of a Dallas surgeon who changed the structure of the girl’s face -- and the course of her life.
It’s a celebration 10 years in the making with strangers who became friends and now consider each other family.
“She’s such a brave and outgoing child,” said Aileen Chen, a Taiwanese-American who lives in north Dallas.
Yi Ling is the 16-year-old darling who brought Chen and the others together back when she was just six years old.
“She had four segments of two noses. Her eye socket was pushed over. Her brain was out of her skull, down into the area where her nose should've been,” said craniofacial surgeon Dr. Craig Hobar.
Yi Ling was born in a small Chinese village four hours from Beijing. Her severe cleft palate extended to her brain. Odds of survival were slim, and in China, children like her with severe deformities are often abandoned.
“She couldn't go to school,” Chen said. “The school would not accept her because of the way she looks... [She] scared other kids.”
So, Hobar’s non-profit, LEAP Global Missions, brought Yi Ling to North Texas.
“I actually took her picture and put it by my desk and looked at it every day for six months, trying to develop exactly what we were going to do,” Hobar said.
It was a Medical City Children’s Hospital that Yi Ling would undergo a series of surgeries to essentially rearrange her face.
News 8 followed alongside as a volunteer team of doctors and nurses performed the first 11-hour operation in 2005.
"We can shift her eye socket and her facial bones back to where they're supposed to be,” Hobar told us from the operating room.
From the waiting room, Yi Ling’s nervous mother called it the longest day of her life.
Weeks later, a second operation would help Yi Ling develop normal speech. Finally, she was able to smile for the first time.
Yi Ling and her mother would go back to China, but return six years later. There was more work to be done.
In 2011, a now-12-year-old Yi Ling came back to Dallas for a third surgery to reshape her nose and open up her breathing passage on the right side.
“Now that she's finished growing, this is the perfect time to do the final surgery,” Hobar said.
After five more years, Yi Ling reunited with Hobar for her fourth and final surgery.
“We’re going to make sure her nose is completely open on the inside to breathe well, and it seems like she is breathing well. We're going to narrow it a little bit and soften up that scar a little bit,” Hobar said during an exam of Yi Ling.
Fearless and brave, Yi Ling’s new appearance is starting to match her outgoing personality.
Her mother’s nerves about another operation have lightened, too. They trust Dr. Hobar and his team with Yi Ling’s life.
Hours later, word came in that the final surgery was a success. With her healing now nearing completion, Yi Ling tells us she feels happy and more confident.
“She said she would never dream this,” said Chen, who is among a handful of friends who have witnessed the girl’s 10-year transformation.
“Before I met her, I didn’t know kids like this can be healed,” Chen said. “With her new look, she's going to have a lot of friends and she's going to be successful in whatever she [wants].”
Through tears, Yi Ling’s mother expressed her relief, joy and gratitude.
"I could never abandon my child, no matter what," she told us.
As they prepare to leave North Texas for the last time, a bittersweet farewell.
“I was surprised to see how love can pass such a long distance,” Chen said, embracing Yi Ling.
A little girl is now inspired to give back to the world around her, thanks to the generosity of a doctor 7,000 miles from home.
“It's been a very special journey for me, and I feel as blessed as she probably does,” Hobar said.