The surgeon who saves children’s smile

March 06, 2023 - 10:26
Dr Nguyễn Văn Đẩu has been doing this since he started working at Nhi Đồng 1 Hospital in 1988. In 1989, he and his colleagues had their first surgeries on children with cleft lips in Việt Nam.
Dr Nguyễn Văn Đẩu along with colleagues in Nhi Đồng 1 Hospital, perform 1,000 cleft lips cases per year. Photo

Every day at 6.30am, Dr Nguyễn Văn Đẩu starts working at the Odonto-Stomatology Department of Nhi Đồng 1 Hospital, HCM City. On a typical weekend day, he meets 100 children unlucky enough to be born with cleft lips.

Dr Nguyễn Văn Đẩu has been doing this since he started working at Nhi Đồng 1 Hospital in 1988. In 1989, he and his colleagues had their first surgeries on children with cleft lips in Việt Nam.

In 2013, Dr Đẩu connected Smile Train, an organisation that supports children who have cleft lips and palates, with Đà Nẵng hospital for women and children for this organisation to fund all the surgeries and transportation for cleft lips patients and their families.

In August 2022, Smile Train collaborated with Nhi Đồng 1 Hospital to open the Cleft Leadership Centre (CLC)- the first Cleft Palate research and comprehensive care centre in HCM City, with the vision to be a model of the Cleft Palate Centre in Asia- Pacific.

Dr Nguyễn Văn Đẩu has conducted thousands of surgeries for free under the funding of Smile Train. He, along with colleagues in Nhi Đồng 1 Hospital, treats 1000 cleft lips cases per year, the online newspaper Dân Trí (Intellectuals) reports.

More than 10,000 free cleft lips surgeries have been operated on in the last ten years. 

A light to unlucky children

Đ.T.M.L from Đồng Nai brought her son to Nhi Đồng 1 Hospital at 7am on the weekend.

According to L, she and her husband knew their son had a cleft lip during pregnancy. But it was not until when the child was four months old he showed clear symptoms of cleft lips that his parents had to bring him to the hospital.

“At that time, every time I see him, I cry," L said.

She had to quit her job to take care of her son. All the living expenses depend on her husband. She said if they did not have support from doctors and hospitals, maybe they would give up.

“Everybody said I should meet Dr Đẩu. And after I heard what he said, I understood my son’s situation and felt better,” L added.

“10,000 successful surgeries are 10,000 times I feel pure happiness. I feel lucky to be in this job, to train more doctors, to receive appreciation from colleagues, as well as the nonmaterial value of this job. For me, that is enough," Dr Đẩu said. 

Telling about his most impressive stories, Dr Đẩu remembered a girl he had operated on a long time ago. She grew up, married a foreigner, and invited him to her wedding.

On the wedding day, she saw Dr Đẩu and brought her parents-in-law to his table. With their witness, she said: “You can see now I am a very pretty woman. But I was born with cleft lips, and thanks to Dr Đẩu, I can be here today and drink with you.”

The wedding inspired Dr Đẩu in what he does and motivated him to continue to move forward.

Each patient is a story

While he is happy to see children can have bright life, Dr Đẩu still feels sad when thinking about those who are affected by the traditional mindset.

“People are often ashamed of their children who have disabilities," Dr Đẩu said. "That kind of mindset stops them from seeking the way out, treating their children and helping them smile. Medical staff cannot tell families to discharge the baby when they spot the disabilities during the ultrasound. Before anything, you have to understand your child’s illness and give the right advice to their parents."

Dr Đẩu works at the Odonto-Stomatology Department of Nhi Đồng 1 Hospital, HCM City. Photo

Of 35 years doing this job, he has seen a lot of sad stories. There was a wealthy family whose first grandchild had cleft lips. They built another floor in their house to hide him so nobody would see.

After years of treatment, the kid now lives a normal life. However, when his mom was pregnant with the second child, they also found out this child had cleft lips too.

“I remember it was in Lunar New Year," Dr Đẩu remembered. "They still visit me and discuss the treatment plan for the second child. Everything is smooth because we have the first child succeeded.”

The next time after that, he had the chance to visit this family in his hometown. Talking about the second child, he was stunned when knowing that the parents had decided to discharge the child because they couldn’t bear judgments.

“The judgments are too strong that they discharged the child when we can certainly save and give them a new life after birth," Dr Đẩu said. "10,000 children are like that, and they all have a bright life for now.” 

Besides sad stories, there were also a lot of bright stories of the children he saved.

Dr Đẩu has an interest in children's shows, in one of which he saw a girl who competed in a talent model show. He soon realised she was one of the patients he had treated.

According to her mother, Vy, she was shocked to find out her child had cleft lips during pregnancy. She was despairing until she met Dr Đẩu.

“He explained to me every detail, so I don’t have to worry when I have her, Vy said. "When she was born, he was keen on fixing her smile and treating her. I can’t believe now my daughter has a very beautiful smile. I am sincerely thankful to him for treating her kindly, like a member of his family,”

“Even when the doctor is skilful, they still have scars. But kids with disabilities often have very beautiful eyes, some have the gift of art, and some have a very beautiful body shape,” Dr Đẩu said. VNS