BALTIMORE -- Blind musical prodigy Jermaine Gardner will grow up with one less physical stumbling block, thanks to a special foundation that paid for his facial reconstructive surgery.
"Like my nose?" the 4-year-old Baltimore boy asks when visitors come to hear him perform works of Beethoven, Bach, Mozart, Chopin and Liszt memorized from tape recordings.
In July, he successfully underwent surgery to correct facial deformities he was born with: an abnormally bulged forehead, eyes spaced far apart, and a nose lacking a bridge.
Doctors at a Dallas hospital reshaped Jermaine's face and sculpted a new nose, allowing him to wear dark glasses for the first time. The surgery was paid for by the Texas-based Foundation for Craniofacial Deformities, which donates operations for up to four children annually through funds provided by the General Electric Foundation.
Although Jermaine can't see the difference, he can feel it. "He feels the change. He loves what's happened. All of it," said his mother, Jacqueline Kess-Gardner, 34.
The July 27 procedures at Humana Advanced Surgical Institute at Medical City Dallas were the first phase of surgery. Jermaine still faces further reconstructive work in January. The total cost of the procedures is about $200,000.
The surgery should spare him some of the psychological trauma of growing up disfigured, his mother said. "Other kids can be cruel about looks, more so than the blindness. We want him to have as many advantages as possible."
Jermaine's musical ability was apparent when as an infant he climbed up to a piano and played a song he had just heard. At 13 months, he could play the melody of Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata."
His talent has drawn attention from national magazines and television, and landed him special performances. Publicity from one of those events changed his life.
In May, Kess-Gardner and her autoworker husband, James Gardner, 36, accepted an invitation for their son to perform in Los Angeles at a surprise birthday party for Stevie Wonder, who is also blind.
Jermaine played memorized selections from Wonder's album, "The Secret Life of Plants," she said, and the singer gave Jermaine an expensive keyboard synthesizer. The relationship brought Jermaine to the attention of the foundation.
His parents had some reservations about the operation for correcting his "facial clefting syndrome," a medical description for a range of birth-related facial deformities of unknown cause.
It involved peeling back the skin from part of Jermaine's face and head, moving his eye sockets closer together, lifting his cheeks, reshaping his forehead and taking some of the removed bone to construct a bridge for his nose.
Even though Dr. Kenneth Salyer assured Kess-Gardner that only low risks were associated with the procedure, she "worried about brain damage."
"I was worried that we'd jeopardize the gift God gave him just for a new nose," she said.
Jermaine's only complaint after the operation was that his face "felt fat." However, his mother had a moment of panic when he went to the piano 12 days after surgery and tried to play, but lost his concentration.
But his gift returned in time for a thank-you recital he and his brother, Jamaal, 9, also a pianist, gave for a standing-room-only crowd of more than 200 hospital patients, employes and visitors.
The publicity has had both good and bad effects, Kess-Gardner said. "I get a lot of calls from parents of blind kids, and it's nice to talk to them and let them know that you just never know what your children can accomplish. If other kids can be helped as a result of Jermaine, it's great."
But she has had to fend off interview requests and benefit performance invitations. The family changed to an unlisted telephone number and installed a high fence around the back yard to discourage gawkers.
"He can't really perform for everybody who asks, or he'll be burned out at age 4," his mother said. "I still want him to feel it's fun, not a chore."