Cleft-repair surgery helps teenage boy find a smile

September 21, 2017 - 09:00

Tà Yên Rẫy, a 16 year-old living in mountainous Ma Nới Commune, central province of Ninh Thuật, was often called “monster-faced boy” because of his cleft lip.

Doctor Nguyễn Văn Đẩu of HCM City Children No1 and Tà Yên Rẫy after the cleft lip repair surgery. — Photo
Viet Nam News

NINH THUẬN —Tà Yên Rẫy, a 16 year-old living in mountainous Ma Nới Commune, central province of Ninh Thuật, was often called “monster-faced boy” because of his cleft lip.

As soon as Rẫy’s mother, Tạ Yên Thị Mai, gave birth to him – her fifth child—villagers  told her to kill him. His life, they said, would be miserable.

Instead, Mai carried her son to terraced fields, where she made a tent for both of them in order to escape from the villagers’ prejudice.

She said that at that time, she just thought: “God gives him to me. He is bad-looking but he is my son. When he grows up, he cannot do much, but it’s OK if he could help me tend cattle.”

The mother and son, from the Raglai ethnic group, live in a remote area, without any neighbours or friends. Since he was a new-born, his cleft lip has prevented Rẫy from eating and speaking properly. Breastfeeding was difficult. His mother fed him with spoons of  boiled sugar rice water. He has grown up with the sun and the heat of central Ninh Thuận Province.  

Rẫy does not go to school and cannot speak Vietnamese. He has never seen a television or a telephone. All he knows are his mother, spacious terraced fields and crops.

But last month, for the first time, Rẫy and his mother left their home to go to HCM City – a big city that they had never considered visiting.

Their mission was potentially life-changing: a cleft-repair surgery for Rẫy, so that he could eat and talk normally, and escape the stigmatisation that had followed him since birth.

The journey from his tent to the big city was the journey to find a smile.

For the first time, Rẫy was among thousands of people in a crowded hospital – HCM City Children No1 Hospital. He held his mother’s shirt. The mother, worries etched on her face, kept watching the man who took them to that hospital.

Mai can speak a little Vietnamese, but not enough for her to understand what doctors told her.

The life-changing photo

Photographer Trần Trọng Lượm is the man who took Mai and his son to HCM City for a cleft repair surgery. Lượm met Rẫy for the first time more than one month ago when he made a visit to Ma Nới Commune, Ninh Sơn District.

The 16-year-old herd boy reminded Lượm of Tà Yên Nghiệp – a boy in the photo “Behind the smile” that won a special prize in a photography contest last year.

Nghiệp also suffered from cleft lip, more serious than Rẫy’s. Today, however, Nghiệp looks much better after a free cleft repair surgery donated by Smile Train. Lượm wanted to provide the same treatment for Rẫy.

It was not easy to persuade Rẫy’s mother to go ahead with the surgery, Lượm said. She accepted Rẫy’s abnormality as their destiny. She said she was afraid that with a nice-looking face, Rẫy would not live with her any more.

Lượm even asked for help from elderly people in the village. Mai was partly persuaded by seeing nice photos of Nghiệp after a surgery.

When Mai had been persuaded, Rẫy had his cleft lip repaired at HCM City Children No1 Hospital.

After his one-hour surgery, his mother was happy and surprised. She had not believed  Rẫy’s cleft lip could ever be transformed; moreover, doctors could do it, not Gods or immolation.

It should be earlier

Head of dentomaxillofacial department under HCM City Children No1 Hospital, Nguyễn Văn Đẩu said that cleft lip repair should be done at ages of one or two.

Rẫy received the surgery too late, so he had to have another surgery to heal the inner part of his lips. He must complete physical exercises to improve his pronunciation.

Đẩu said that he remembered cases in which people with cleft lips received surgeries too late, for examples, 70 year-old woman or 23-year-old twins in Central Highland Region.

They wondered that why they did not receive surgeries earlier as charity groups usually offered free cleft lip repair surgeries and asked local authorities to make lists of eligible people.

Still, the family and Lượm are hoping the benefits of Rẫy’s surgery will be more than physical.

“Rẫy reminds me of Nghiệp. Nghiệp used to be like Rẫy, very shy and alone. However, after the cleft repair surgery, Nghiệp is more confident, he goes to school, has friends and studies well,” Lượm told Lao Động ( Labour) newspaper, adding that he wanted such changes for Rẫy. — VNS