Chase Karenbauer doesn’t like milkshakes anymore.
“For my last surgery, I was only allowed liquids for 6 weeks,” he says. “Milkshakes were the best source of protein, so I kept having milkshakes. When I found a good one, I could eat it for a while â€” but then I would have to change. And then I just kind of got sick of milkshakes after that.”
Chase, 12, was born with a bilateral cleft lip and cleft palate, which are separations or gaps in the lip and mouth. He’s needed 14 surgeries to fix problems caused by the condition, with the first procedure coming at just 3 months old.
Other than causing him to develop a dislike for milkshakes, the surgeries helped fix Chase’s problems. The sixth grader in the Grove City Area School District has become a standout gymnast and wrestler. He won the 12-and-under, 67-pound weight class championship in early 2021 at the World of Wrestling’s Tulsa Nationals in Oklahoma.
“Even though you have adversity, just overcome it and never give up,” Chase says. “Like anything, never give up.”
‘A Little Bit Scary at First’
Doctors diagnosed Chase’s cleft lip when he was still in utero, when an ultrasound revealed the condition.
Both of Chase’s parents work in the medical field. Although they were worried about the condition, they did as much preparation as they could to be ready to help Chase when he was born.
Chase was born with a bilateral cleft lip â€” which are splits on both sides of the upper lip. He also had a cleft palate, which is a separation or gap in the roof of the mouth.
“It was a lot different than what we thought,” says Jason Karenbauer, Chase’s dad. “It was a bilateral cleft, both sides, and the whole way back. That was a little bit scary at first.”
Cleft lips and palates happen when tissues in the face don’t form properly during pregnancy. They are among the most common congenital abnormalities.
Babies born with cleft palate often have trouble eating at first â€” a problem Chase had.
“The way a baby eats is they suck, and you can’t form suction with a giant hole in your face,” Jason says. “His feedings were tough at first. They were basically controlled drownings just to get some food in his stomach.”
Chase’s family lived in Michigan at the time, and Chase underwent surgery to close the openings in his lip at 3 months old. The procedure to fix the cleft palate came just after his first birthday.
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‘A Lucky Break’
After Chase’s first two surgeries, he and his family moved to western Pennsylvania. The first two procedures had repaired the cleft lip and palate. But he needed more surgeries to improve his speech, repair the bone structure of his jaw, and more.
“We actually don’t address everything up front on purpose,” says Bernard Costello, DMD, MD, chief, Pediatric Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery, UPMC, and dean, School of Dental Medicine, University of Pittsburgh. “Treatment is staged in a very careful way that’s coordinated with their growth and development.”
Dr. Costello says the staged structure of treatment is based on the child’s growth and leads to a more complete repair over time.
When Chase’s family moved to western Pennsylvania, his surgeon in Michigan, Sean Edwards, MD, recommended they visit the Cleft-Craniofacial Center at UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh to continue Chase’s treatment. Dr. Edwards studied under Dr. Costello and consulted with Dr. Costello about Chase’s case.
“It was a lucky break and a great, easy transition to the University of Pittsburgh and Children’s,” Jason says.
UPMC Children’s treats craniofacial conditions like Chase’s with a team approach, Dr. Costello says. The experts include not only surgeons but speech pathologists, social workers, ear, nose, and throat (ENT) doctors, orthodontists, and more.
‘I Needed to Keep Working’
Chase doesn’t remember much of the surgeries from his younger days.
“The only thing I can remember is it hurt so bad,” he says.
Still, he says the procedures never scared him.
Chase’s parents wanted their son to have as normal a childhood as possible, and sports became a major part of that.
Both of Chase’s parents have a background in sports, and his sister participated in gymnastics. At the age of 18 months, Chase had his first gymnastics lesson. He also played baseball and soccer. At age 5, he took up wrestling.
“I saw it on TV once, and I really wanted to do it,” Chase says.
The early years of wrestling involved learning the techniques. Although Chase enjoyed wrestling, he says he didn’t really get good at it until he was 8 or 9 years old.
“I went out to a national tournament where I won 1 match out of 10,” he says. “I knew I needed to keep working to get up there.
“I just stuck with it, and I’ve just gotten better and better.”
The next time Chase wrestled at that same national tournament, he won 9 of 10 matches â€” flipping his record entirely.
“I said, ‘He’s on his way now,'” Jason says.
His real wrestling breakout came in January 2021, when he competed at the World of Wrestling’s Tulsa Nationals in Oklahoma. The event is called “the toughest tournament in the world.”
Chase went into the tournament ranked as the No. 31 wrestler in the 12-and-under, 67-pound bracket. He upset the second-ranked wrestler in his first match and kept winning. He made it to the championship round, where he defeated the top-seeded wrestler in his bracket to win the title.
“We had a lot of hope for Chase, but we didn’t know if he really had it in him to take down this kid that had all these titles,” Jason says. “And Chase ended up winning in the end. It was a great day.”
‘He’s Chase with Grit’
In addition to his wrestling prowess, Chase has earned multiple state championships in gymnastics.
“I think gymnastics helps me a lot with the wrestling,” he says. “Because of strength and conditioning, you’re more agile. It just helps you a lot with flexibility and stuff like that.”
His success doesn’t come by accident. He wakes up before 6 a.m. on school days for a workout. Most nights, he has 2 hours of practice â€” either gymnastics or wrestling. And he competes at gymnastics meets or wrestling tournaments on the weekends.
He visits the Cleft-Craniofacial Center at UPMC Children’s every 6 months or so for follow-up appointments. His most recent surgery was about 2 years ago, when bone from his hip was taken to help repair his jaw.
In addition to getting sick of milkshakes, he also needed to rehab his hip after that surgery.
“I wasn’t really allowed to walk a lot,” Chase says. “And then over time, it got better. Then I’d have to practice walking, and then running, and stuff like that.
“Since I wasn’t really allowed to walk or run that much, I wasn’t practicing, I wasn’t doing anything really. After that, I started working harder and harder, and then I got back to where I was.”
Over the years, Chase had to overcome more than just his cleft lip and palate.
At a national wrestling tournament in 2021, Chase broke his arm during a match. He finished the match â€” and won â€” but ended up withdrawing from the tournament because of the injury. Three months later, after rehab, he was back competing â€” finishing third in the country in freestyle wrestling and fifth in Greco-Roman wrestling at a tournament in Wisconsin.
Dr. Costello says he uses stories like Chase’s as an example of what children with craniofacial conditions can do.
“He is a kid who exemplifies what we love to do,” Dr. Costello says. “He’s an example of grit, resilience, and determination in the face of any kind of challenge. He’s a kid that’s competitive, unbelievably talented in the sport. But what we want out of this team care, and why it’s so great for us who get to work in this space, is we want a kid like that to wake up every morning and not have to think about his facial difference.
“He’s not Chase with a cleft. He’s Chase with grit.”
Although he’s just 12 years old, Chase is already thinking about his future. Inspired by his own experience, he wants to become a dentist one day. He also wants to keep going in both wrestling and gymnastics and hopes to wrestle in college.
“It doesn’t matter what you go through,” Chase says. “You can still do anything you really want.”
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From nutrition to illnesses, from athletics to school, children will face many challenges growing up. Parents often will make important health care decisions for them. We hope to help guide both of you in that journey. UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh ranks consistently on U.S. News & World Report’s Best Children’s Hospitals Honor Roll. UPMC Magee-Womens Hospital is a longtime national leader for women and their newborns. We aim to provide the best care for your children, from birth to adulthood and beyond.