January 30, 2019

“You don’t need to be afraid.” A 10-year-old’s words of comfort to an adult facing surgery.

Leslie McDaniel had never had surgery in her life and was apprehensive. Bethany Lafata, 10, is already an expert at preparing for surgery, so she shared encouragement and advice.

“Just remember, don’t be scared,” Bethany Lafata, 10, told Leslie McDaniel.

Bethany Grace Lafata, 10, has had about a dozen surgeries for cleft lip/cleft palate since she was 18 months old, including some at Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt.

With all that experience, she’s become an expert on preparing for surgery.

So, when Bethany’s father, Ken Lafata, came home one evening with news that one of his Vanderbilt University Medical Center co-workers, Leslie McDaniel, was scared about an upcoming surgery, Bethany got an idea. She’d pen a letter of encouragement and advice.

“She has one of the biggest hearts of anyone I have ever met, and she is only 10 years old,” her dad said.

Ken has worked as IT auditor in the VUMC Office of Internal Audit since January 2017. That’s where he met McDaniel, who started about two weeks after him, also an IT auditor.

As colleagues often do in small departments — there are 11 employees in VUMC Internal Audit with three of those assigned to an IT focus — they share family and life stories. Ken’s wife, Deborah, also works for VUMC as a registered nurse in the Vanderbilt Memory and Aging Clinic. Leslie is married and has two children, ages 10 months and 2 years.

“We talk about our kids all the time, and we talk about each other to our families at home,” Ken said.

“Bethany knows me, and I know her,” McDaniel added. “It feels like I am Aunt Leslie.”

One day, McDaniel admitted to Ken that she was scared about the upcoming surgery.

“I had never had surgery before in my life. I was very scared, and being a mom with two kids, I worried I could die from anesthesia. You never know,” McDaniel said.

A couple days later, Ken returned to work with a sealed envelope holding Bethany’s letter to Leslie. His daughter had given him strict instructions: “Bethany said, under no circumstances was I to look at it or read it,” he laughed.

McDaniel opened the envelope and read:

Dear Aunt Leslie,

My dad told me that your (sic) going through surgery. I wanted to tell you that you don’t have to be scared. As you know, I have been through a lot of surgeries, so I’ll tell you a little about them, and why you don’t need to be scared.

First off, you won’t need to be scared because whenever, I’ve never felt a thing during surgeries. (Quick tip, it’s always good to bring something that makes you happy). Also, sometimes surgeries are good because you’ll feel better after surgery. Although, whenever you have to stay there at the hospital, you get really homesick. Although the people who would just spend there (sic) time just to help you, it makes you really happy!

Just Remember, Don’t Be Scared



Bethany L.

“Aunt Leslie” couldn’t keep a letter so filled with love and wisdom to herself.

“I had to share it and showed it to everyone because it was so sweet. I almost cried,” she said. “This child that has had many surgeries and she is so strong and not scared, and here I am an adult scared about dying of a deviated septum.

“The letter gave me relief. It was really good advice. The whole time I was preparing for surgery I was thinking about my children because they make me happy.”

Ken and Deborah adopted Bethany from the Fujian Province of China when she was 13 months old, taking her home to Indianapolis, Indiana. There she had the bulk of her cleft lip and cleft palate procedures to repair her nose and mouth. When the family moved to Nashville in 2015, they sought out care at Children’s Hospital.

“We’re very fortunate that we ended up here with fantastic care to help us continue down the road to finish up this process and to resolve the cleft palate deficiencies,” Ken said. “Not only was she missing the palate, but it also opened up to the nasal cavity.”

But all those surgeries, Ken believes, have helped shape her personality.

“This child that has had many surgeries and she is so strong and not scared, and here I am an adult scared about dying of a deviated septum.”

“She is an incredibly tough child,” he said. “But she has also been exposed to a lot of good people who are caring and sympathetic to going through these things. That has helped shape who she is, and when other people are going through these things, she has that empathy and wants to support them so they know things will be all right and that they can make it through it. She is the ultimate cheerleader.”

Grateful for the advice and thoughtfulness, McDaniel wrote a note back thanking Bethany for the encouragement and support.

In part, McDaniel wrote, “I will make sure to bring something that makes me happy (such a good idea!). I will also be thinking of you and how strong you are. I promise I will not be scared.”

Ken said his daughter’s letter truly represents her relationship with other people.

“That’s who she is. She wants people to be comfortable and she wants people to be safe. She has one of the biggest hearts of anyone I have ever met, and she is only 10 years old,” Ken said. “It was pretty sound advice, especially for a 10-year-old.”

Bethany’s words of assurance helped McDaniel through her surgery, and, as it happened, Bethany was right. Everything turned out fine.