Our volunteer surgical team in Quy Nhon, Vietnam, is doing some amazing work. Erin Martin, ReSurge's development assistant, is with the team there and wrote to us with this great story about our oldest patient there, Tâm, and we couldn't wait to share it:
Talking to Tâm's family following his surgery made me understand why he looked so eager and excited on clinic day and again the morning before his procedure. He's been waiting 58 years to have his cleft lip repaired. He has been going to different surgical team missions since he was 24 years old, yet has always been turned down for surgery due to not being a child. After finding out that we treat adults as well, and that he qualified for surgery, it's no surprise he looked so happy.
Tâm lives in An Nhon, less than 50 kilometers from Quy Nhon, and has lived 58 years with a severe cleft lip. His mother died when he was a few months old, and his father died a year after that, so he grew up passed amongst various relatives. He dropped out of school in the third grade because his cleft was growing larger and everybody teased him. Since then he has helped his family in the fields. Speaking is very hard for Tâm, and even his relatives struggle to understand him. Tâm is a remarkably striking man. He holds his head high and nods sagely at us each time we pass him. Today I sat with him waiting for his surgery, and he kept smiling and watching every move of the nurses and doctors passing by, waiting for his turn to be called in to the OR. When I told him it was his turn in five minutes, he grinned. Dr. Jorge Palacios (our surgical outreach director in Ecuador) performed Tâm's surgery and did an excellent job.
After Tâm was moved to the recovery room, many of us went in there to watch him wake up and witness his reaction to the massive change in his appearance. It was beautiful. Absolutely beautiful. Everyone cheered as he held up a mirror, looked at himself very carefully, and nodded proudly. His eyes filled with tears as he kept staring and staring into the mirror. He then asked for a comb and combed his hair very straight so he would look as handsome as possible for photos. This made everybody laugh, and he then requested a cloth to clean up his face. He is very proud of his appearance and wanted to pose for photos. We all took so many photos of him, and his pride as he stared directly into our lenses was amazing. Volunteer anesthesiologist Dr. George Gregory was also teary and said, "This is exactly why we do what we do."
Tâm said he was worried his wife wouldn't recognize him now, and in response, volunteer surgeon Dr. Bill McClure said through a translator, "And maybe your girlfriends won't, either!" -- which everyone thought was hilarious. He is very handsome, especially after his procedure. We all repeatedly told him how handsome he looked and he nodded in agreement in between gazes into the mirror.
Jorge came into the recovery room then, and I told Tâm in Vietnamese that this was his surgeon. He pointed to Jorge, and pointed to his lip, as if to ask, "Him?" and he reached for Jorge's hand. He and Jorge sat on the bed together and looked at before and after photos on Jorge's phone, as Tâm rested his head on Jorge's shoulder. It was a beautiful moment.
I accompanied Tâm, his nephew and sister-in-law up to the ward after he was released from the recovery room. His nephew pushed him in a wheelchair, beaming with pride as everybody we passed in the hospital stared at him. The people near the OR had seem him coming and going and were so surprised by how different he looked. We ran into Jorge on our way, and in the elevator up to the ward, Jorge pulled out his phone and made every stranger whose attention he could get on the elevator see the before photos of Tâm, to demonstrate what a huge change he had undergone.
When the team was done with rounds, Hoa Ton, one of the translators, came outside and helped me interview the sister-in-law and nephew briefly. The sister-in-law said when she saw Tâm in the PACU, she felt very happy, and that everyone is surprised by how handsome he is and always has been behind his large cleft lip. She told me they really appreciate our work and don't know how they could ever repay us. I asked Hoa to tell Tâm that we're sorry he had to wait so long to have his cleft repaired, and that we all think he should move to Hollywood and become an actor because he's so handsome. Everybody thought that was hilarious, and we shook hands and said goodbye. I don't think I'll ever forget that man, and I hope his life becomes much easier now that he's finally gotten the care he deserved decades ago.
Many thanks to Erin for this wonderful story, and to all of our volunteers in Quy Nhon doing this great work. We are also grateful to RealSelf for making the team's trip to Quy Nhon possible.
Stay tuned for more updates as the team finishes up its second week of surgery!