24/09/2021 09:42 GMT+7 Email Print Like 0

Bring the little smiles back

Over the past 30 years, with the cooperation of hospitals from central to local levels, the Vietnamese Children’s Fund, together with domestic and international charities, have continually carried out numerous surgery programs, bringing back smiles and opportunities for millions of Vietnamese children born with maxillofacial defects.
We were present at a medical examination for children at the Department of Odonto-Stomatology of the Vietnam National Children's Hospital during the period of social distancing in Hanoi. Seeing children as young as 2-3 months old in the arms of their parents with severe lip disabilities made doctors more determined to succeed in their job.

According to Doctor Do Van Can - Head of the Department of Odonto-Stomatology, lip and palate clefts in children could be caused by many factors such as environmental pollution, radiation, a mother using drugs during the first 3 months of pregnancy or genetics. According to the standards of some international organizations, children with such deformities usually receive surgery at the age of 3-6 months old. However, currently, the Vietnam National Children's Hospital usually performs cleft lip surgery at 1-3 months old and cleft palate surgery at 12-18 months old. In the cases of a double cleft lip, which often comes with a cleft palate, the children would have to follow a treatment regime from birth to adulthood.

That afternoon, we followed Doctor Can's team into the operating room. On that day, they performed double cleft lip surgery for 3-month-old Nguyen Minh Quan. Ngan, his mother, carried the baby to the operating room following the doctors, and could not hide the worries and anxiety shown on her face. The surgery, which lasted nearly 2 hours, was a test for the mother as she put all her hopes in the doctors to help recover her son’s smile.



 Cleft palate surgery for children at the Vietnam - Cuba Friendship Hospital  in July 2021.
The program was performed by Operation Smile. Photo: Cong Dat / VNP



Doctor Do Van Can, head of the Department of Odonto-Stomatology of the Vietnam National Children’s Hospital,
examines a pediatric patient with a cleft palate. Photo: Cong Dat / VNP


Pre-surgery screening for pediatric patients with cleft palates at
the Vietnam - Cuba Friendship Hospital in July 2011. Photo: Cong Dat / VNP


A pediatric patient with a cleft palate was brought into the operating room
at the Vietnam National Children's Hospital. Photo: Cong Dat / VNP


Doctors administer anesthesia to the patient before surgery. Photo: Cong Dat / VNP
  

Lip correction for children. Photo: Cong Dat / VNP
 
Each surgery usually lasts from 1-2 hours depending on the degree of the cleft lip and palate of the child. Photo: Cong Dat / VNP
 

More than 2 hours passed and Quan was released from the operating room with his lips healed. The anxiety turned into happiness when Ngan held the baby in her arms. The 3-month-old boy was still sleeping soundly as the doctor instructed her on how to care for him post-surgery. Ngan's eyes filled with tears as she regained hope for her child's future.

After the surgery, Doctor Can said that most children with birth defects in lips and palates came from poor families. In recent years, there have been many charity programs that provided operation opportunities for Vietnamese children to regain  their bright smiles. Those programs prioritized families with low incomes and partially support travel and accommodation costs for patients' families. Currently, the Department of Odonto-Stomatology of the Vietnam National Children's Hospital, with support from the Taiwan NCF Foundation and the Smile Train organization, had funds to support cleft lip and palate surgeries in children in the amount of 2.2 million dong/child. For the period from October 2019 to September 2021, the department has provided such financial support for more than 700 children.

 
 
"With about 3,000 children born with maxillofacial deformities each year, it was estimated that there were still about 10,000 children who did not have access to medical services of the organization. Therefore, each year, Operation Smile set the goal of examining and treating about 2,000 patients, with dozens of surgeries performed throughout the country."

Nguyen Viet Phuong, Chief Representative
of Operation Smile Vietnam

.
Usually, children with cleft lips, cleft palates or misaligned teeth, after surgery must undergo speech therapy. Therefore, in addition to financial support, the NCF Foundation and Smile Train Organization also aid the Vietnam National Children's Hospital in training specialists in surgery, speech therapy, orthopedics and dentistry.

Speech therapy is critical for the children's development in the future; therefore, the Department of Odonto-Stomatology is coordinating with the Audiology and Speech Language Therapy Center to help the children in this area.


 Doctor Thanh, who works at the Audiology and Speech Language Therapy Center of the Vietnam National Children's Hospital, said that therapy must follow a methodical process in order to help children develop proper pronunciation when reaching school age. In the first stage, it is necessary to stimulate a children’s air flow to come out through their mouth when they speak, then let them listen to the words, sounds and sentences that they say wrong. When the children hear and learn the words clearly, it is time to use the method of pronunciation suggestions and slowly level up to phrases or short sentence pronunciation. At the last stage, the children get to practice conversations with others.


Pediatric patients in a postoperative room. Photo: Cong Dat / VNP


After surgery, the patient is kept in the hospital for observation until the stitches are removed. Photo: Cong Dat / VNP

Doctors regularly visit the pediatric patients after surgery. Photo: Cong Dat / VNP
 



Speech language therapy for children with cleft lips and palates after surgery at the Audiology
and Speech Language therapy center of the Vietnam National Children's Hospital. Photo: Cong Dat / VNP



 Life at home with 4-year-old Zhang Gia Bao, who has been following the treatment regimen
in the hospital since he was two years old. Photo: Cong Dat / VNP

 

Currently, smile surgery programs for children are not only performed at the Vietnam National Children's Hospital, but also at many other hospitals, from central level ones such as the National Hospital of Odonto-Stomatology, the Vietnam - Cuba Friendship Hospital and the Military Central Hospital 108 to provincial and city hospitals across the country. Supporting them both financially and with medical training are many social organizations such as Operation Smile Vietnam, the Project Vietnam Foundation, Taiwan NCF Foundation, Smile Train, ESSO and the Vietnam Children's Fund as well as a number of Vietnamese businesses.

As one of the first non-profit organizations working in the field of public health care in Vietnam, Operation Smile started its free examination and surgery for children born with cleft palates, cleft lips, and other maxillofacial deformities since 1989. It started as an initiative by veteran John Connor and 38 US volunteers. For more than 30 years running, Operation Smile Vietnam has supported examination and treatment for more than 62,000 children in all provinces and cities of Vietnam.

Nguyen Viet Phuong, Chief Representative of Operation Smile Vietnam, said that with about 3,000 children born with maxillofacial deformities each year, it was estimated that there were still about 10,000 children who did not have access to medical services of the organization. Therefore, each year, Operation Smile set the goal of examining and treating about 2,000 patients, with dozens of surgeries performed throughout the country.

Introduced to us by Operation Smile Vietnam, we met and had a conversation with 26-year-old Ngo Xuan Long. Long participated in the free smile surgery program organized by A Thai Nguyen hospital in association with Operation Smile Vietnam and Samsung company when he was 10 years old.

“When I was a kid, I was often teased and called names by my friends. This made me feel ashamed, so I became self-conscious and was afraid to communicate. After registering with the free smile surgery program, I became more confident in communicating and working,” said Long. With a bright smile and the will to carry on with his life, 16 years after his surgery, Long is a university graduate with a degree in electronics and has worked for 6 years at Samsung.
 
Story: Ngan Ha         Photos: Cong Dat        Translated by Hong Hanh