You don’t see it at first. Dat, a handsome 10-year-old boy, was born in 2008 with a cleft lip and palate. Shortly after his birth, he underwent professional surgery at the Odonto-Maxillo-Facial Hospital, an urban specialty clinic for oral and maxillofacial surgery in Ho Chi Minh City (Vietnam). The lip cleft was closed successfully – apart from a tiny scar, nothing remained. The boy had the best chance of living a normal life.
Next, the palate was closed. This operation would normally have been again performed at the Odonto-Maxillo-Facial Hospital. The surgeon there specializes in cleft operations, the level of medical sophistication is high. Unfortunately it turned out differently. A team of unknown doctors persuaded Dat’s parents to let them perform the palate surgery. With that the boy’s suffering began. Two arteries were severed during the operation. In order to save what could be saved, Dat was operated on several times afterwards. But it was too late. The tissue of the palate had already died. An attempt to close the palate with local tissue also failed.
The consequences for the Vietnamese boy were dramatic. A 4 x 5 cm fistula had formed between the mouth and nasal cavity. Dat couldn’t drink, eat and speak properly. He lived in seclusion and had hardly any friends. In March 2018, the desperate mother again presented her son at the Odonto-Maxillo-Facial Hospital, where she met the two Munich doctors Dr. Daniel Lonic and Dr. Dr. Denys Loeffelbein. Daniel Lonic is the head of the plastic, reconstructive and aesthetic surgery section at the Helios Klinikum München West, Denys Loeffelbein is the chief physician there for oral, maxillofacial and facial plastic surgery.
The Odonto-Maxillo-Facial Hospital is a project partner of Deutsche Cleft Kinderhilfe. In cooperation with the Noordhoff Craniofacial Foundation Taiwan, the Freiburg-based non-profit organization finances the treatment of 200 cleft patients per year at the hospital. Daniel Lonic leads the project for Deutsche Cleft Kinderhilfe pro bono. Dr. Lo, chief physician of the world’s largest craniofacial center at Chang Gung Memorial Hospital in Taiwan and one of the best cleft surgeons in the world, is also on site at the same time. He leads the training workshop, which takes place once a year. The diagnosis of the three doctors is devastating: only a microsurgical transplant can help. The problem: This treatment is not possible with the means available in Vietnam and could also not be financed by the family, which lives in the poorest of circumstances. To help Dat, the Helios Clinic and Deutsche Cleft Kinderhilfe decided to bring the boy to Munich and have Daniel Lonic and Denys Loeffelbein perform the surgery.
Dat and his mother arrived in Germany on November 12, 2018. The brave Vietnamese boy had to go through two major operations. The interventions were successful. Dat is happy. For the first time in his life he can eat and drink without most of the food coming out of his nose again. On the 2nd Advent, the boy flew home with his mother. A completely new period in life now begins for him. “We have been waiting for this for ten years,” says Yen, Dats mother, overjoyed. An early Christmas present for Dat – probably the greatest of his life.
Unfortunately, stories like Dat’s are not uncommon. Time and again, teams embark on surgical missions without all doctors having sufficient experience or the necessary qualifications. In addition, such “surgical safaris” are often unregulated and not integrated with the existing local medical structures. As a result, the children usually do not receive the necessary follow-up treatment after the operation. The patients’ parents, who live in the poorest of circumstances, are overwhelmed and do not have the necessary knowledge to navigate the situation. Sometimes they are even offered money for their child’s surgery.
Using Dat’s experience as an example, we would like to draw your attention to these problems of “wild” surgical missions and the importance of sustainable development aid. His fate should remain the exception. The extraordinary measures taken were the only chance for him, and he was lucky that he happened to come to the attention of our doctors. After ten years of suffering, he will now soon be able to lead a normal life under continued treatment in Vietnam.
For us, Dats history is a confirmation of our work, which is very careful to avoid such terrible outcomes through careful training and making provisions for proper aftercare, and an additional motivation to invest more in the future in building and securing local medical quality standards. So that such “rescue missions”, which are associated with high costs and great organizational effort for all involved and ultimately represent a great burden for the affected families despite the best help, remain the exception.