Jesse Kristin has had more than his share—10 facial operations, extensive orthodontic work and, as a child, not knowing how to respond when other kids asked about his cleft lip/palate.

But at age 19, Kristin spends little time thinking about the past. He is busy attending George Washington University in Washington, D.C., where he majors in biology and, when possible, performs with The Sunday Mail, a piano-based rock band for which he plays drums. The group performed at one of the 2005 presidential inauguration balls.

It was a thrill for Kristin, who received a scholarship from the Foundation for Faces of Children in 2003. “My mother pushed me to apply,” he admits, “but it was well worth it.”

Although Kristin loves music, his future may lie in a field that surprises him. “I’m considering medical school,” he says. “Growing up, I hated hospitals, but I’ve come to realize how much I love biology and its application.” Hospitals remind Kristin of a long list of surgical procedures, including, most vividly, distraction osteogenesis at age 14. The minimally invasive procedure, a surgical process that gradually reconstructs skeletal deformities, was used to advance Kristin’s mid-face and jaw. “A device with two metal posts was implanted in my jaw; I turned it with a key twice a day,” Kristin recalls. The treatment, which lasted two weeks, also helped correct his underbite. “I had braces on and off from third grade through my freshman year in college.”

Kristin is able to put his years of treatment in perspective. “I can remember sitting in a surgeon’s office and hearing that they would need to take a bone graft from my skull or hip,” he says. “I was horrified. But as we were leaving the hospital that day, I saw a kid who had one leg. Situations like that remind me I’m fortunate to have a relatively mild condition.”

Kristin would not wish cleft lip/palate on anyone. On the other hand, he knows that the challenges he faced have shaped—and even benefited—him. “I think the experience made me a more humble person,” he says. “It made me more self-conscious, but that’s okay. I’ve become more self-confident in the process.”

He has been touched by displays of kindness from people who do not let facial disfigurement create a barrier. “You appreciate people who can see past a medical condition,” he says. His advice to any child with a craniofacial condition: “Stick it out. It will probably make you stronger.”