Austin American-Statesman staff photographer Ralph Barrera reflects on his award winning photo essay of 7-year-old América Alcántara who was diagnosed with Crouzon syndrome. The genetic disorder kept her skull from growing normally and threatened her life. In June 2009, doctors at Dell Children’s Medical Center performed craniofacial surgery that reshaped more than her skull. Almost a year later Ralph received a 1st place National Headliners award for his photo essay, “America: A Young Girl’s Fight.”

I am still amazed how people continue to allow a total stranger, like me, into their lives and offer me the privilege of telling their story to thousands of readers. I had the wonderful opportunity to follow America Alcantara and her daughter, also named America, through the youngster’s treatment for Crouzon syndrome.

I met little America on her last day of first grade. On her first day of summer vacation she had craniofacial surgery. Over six months, she was in and out of the hospital, was home-schooled, endured multiple checkups and heartaches, and finally was healthy enough to return to school in November.

By her side, her mother slept in the same hospital bed for a month as she recovered from the initial surgery. The two, close already, became inseparable and developed a bond that will live longer than any photograph I took. It is times like these that give me a special sense of appreciation for life; make me humble and thankful, provide solace and energy to keep going.

On this visit to Dell Children’s Hospital I saw America the daughter resting peacefully as America the mother cuddled her in her arms, gently stroking her face even though she had this high-tech titanium halo wrapped around her head and mouth. It was a moment I didn’t want to disturb, but one I definitely had to capture. I lifted the camera high above my head for an overhead view, thinking somehow this was less obtrusive, and grabbed a couple of quick frames. It made for a delightful and insightful photograph that told the story of a mother and her sick daughter, but from the gentle smile on mom’s face you can tell everything will be all right.

For America I hope everything will be all right in the years to come, and for America the mother, I know she feels the same way.

Must see video: America Alcantara: A young life reshaped, produced by Jenni Jones, narrated by the Ralph and reporter Mary Ann Roser.

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