A Second Chance to Smile

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Energetic and talkative, Bui loved preschool. As he bounced around the playground in his rural Vietnamese community, the 3-year-old paid no mind to his cleft lip while playing ball games and taking turns on the slide.

But whenever young tempers would inevitably flare, Bui’s classmates dealt him cruel reminders of his condition by calling him “sut,” a derogatory term describing someone born with a cleft lip. Bui would react angrily by fighting back, hitting his bullies until they stopped the name-calling.

Incredibly, young Bui never cried in the face of the taunting — a testament to the unconditional love and support of his family. When he was born; his mother, Ai, and father, Luyen, had never seen someone with a cleft lip. To them, it mattered little compared to the joy of welcoming their third child to the family. Ai’s midwife explained it was not unusual for a child to be born with a cleft lip and that surgery was possible to repair it.

While the local clinic provided support on how to feed Bui — he had no trouble breastfeeding, which can be difficult or impossible for many babies born with cleft lip and cleft palate — the family’s lack of financial resources made it impossible for them to afford surgery.

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Luyen and Ai are subsistence farmers, and the family lives off what they grow. What little money the family makes comes from Luyen’s occasional, inconsistent employment as a labourer at a rate of 100,000 dong ($4.50) per day. Their only option for Bui to access care was registering with the local government, which would inform them when a free surgical option became available.

The family was ecstatic when the government agency informed them that Operation Smile was conducting a medical mission in Hanoi — a 2 ½ hour bus ride from from their village. While Ai was unable to make the journey due to the recent birth of her fourth child; Luyen, his mother, My, and Bui’s uncle made the nerve-wracking trip to Hanoi with Bui — each person’s first time in a big city.

At the mission hospital, the family was surprised to see many other families with children like Bui and enjoyed sharing similar experiences in raising a child with a cleft condition. This hopeful atmosphere soon gave way to disappointment. Bui’s patient health screening — a critical step in ensuring safe surgical care for all Operation Smile patients — revealed Bui was running a fever. Considering Bui’s condition and the week’s surgery caseload, this health hazard meant surgery would not be possible until Operation Smile’s next medical mission returned to Hanoi in four months.

Ai, Luyen and Bui made the next trip together; completing the first leg on a motorbike before completing the 100-kilometre trip via bus. Since the previous journey sapped Luyen’s resources, extended family collected the funds to ensure Bui would arrive at the medical mission. Now Ai experienced the anxiety of her first visit to Hanoi, compounded by the tension leading up to her son’s health screening.

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This time, Bui was approved for surgery. Operation Smile medical volunteers performed his life-changing procedure to bring Vietnam one patient closer to eliminating its backlog of untreated cleft conditions. Operation Smile was the first United States-based organisation allowed into the country after the end of the Vietnam War. Since that first medical mission in 1989, Operation Smile has healed the smiles of more than 30,000 children. Still, there are so many people like Bui in dire need of cleft surgery; Operation Smile is committed to identifying and treating each of those patients.

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Six months later, Ai said the family was overjoyed to witness Bui’s new smile, especially his two older sisters. She added that since his surgery, Bui’s overall health improved and that she can now understand him completely when he speaks.

After making a full recovery from his surgery, Bui returned to preschool, which he loves more than ever as a result of his new smile. While he and his friends may still get into the occasional scuffle as young children sometimes do, the bullying and teasing he once endured has come to an end.

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“Every child that has a facial deformity is our responsibility. If we don’t take care of that child, there’s no guarantee that anyone else will.”

- Kathy Magee, Operation Smile Co-founder and President