Nguyễn Triệu Hải Băng – Forever lasting Smile

The 6-month-old Nguyen Trieu Hai Bang – abandoned by her own mother due to her natural-born deformed face, was very lucky to be taken into the shelter of a Buddhism priest. To be able to survive is already a miracle not to mention a future where Hai Bang can go to school and having friends like a normal person.

Nun Nguyen is the one who took care of Hai Bang since she was just 2 months and 4 days old. At that time, she was severely malnourished, weighing merely 2.15 kg. Nun Nguyen told us that during the first week, the baby was hardly able to eat even a little milk. Everyone who saw Hai Bang at this moment said that she would not be able to survive. Yet, with the effort, patience, and boundless love, Nun Nguyen days to days took care of Hai Bang and the baby was getting better little by little.

One day, the crew from FPT arrived bringing great news for the poor kid: Operation Smile had come to Ho Chi Minh City for the surgical mission. With great assistance from the FPT team, Nun Nguyen and Hai Bang were able to reach Operation Smile‘s screening day.

Surrounded by the arms of Operation Smile’s volunteers, Hai Bang’s incomplete smile touched everyone’s hearts. When our doctor said that Hai Bang could receive surgery the following day, everybody was filled with happiness and joy as they know after this surgery, her life would change forever. And most importantly, Hai Bang would smile brighter than ever after the surgery.

The morning after surgery, when nurses cleaned and changed the surgical bandage, we once again met Hai Bang before she discharged from the hospital. Although the wound still hurt a lot, Hai Bang did not cry, she just lied in the hospital bed and looked at us with her lovely bright eyes.

Before saying goodbye, Nun Nguyen confidently told us about the positive plan for Hai Bang in the future. From now on Hai Bang would no longer need to hide behind the pagoda’s doors. Instead, with her smile, she can live like a normal person: having friends and attending school. If she has a good affinity with Buddhism, Nun Nguyen can help her to become a priest. But if Hai Bang wishes to go to college, Nun Nguyen will also do her best to support Hai Bang. Education is not just a dream; it is surely reachable.

Energetic and talkative, Danh loved preschool

Energetic and talkative, Danh loved preschool

Photo: Margherita Mirabella

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, Danh’s classmates dealt him cruel reminders of his condition by calling him “Sut,” a derogatory term describing someone born with a cleft lip. Danh would react angrily by fighting back, hitting his bullies until they stopped the name-calling.

Incredibly, young Danh 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 Danh – 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. Luyen and Ai are subsistence farmers, and the family lives off what they grow. Their only option for Danh 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 their village. While Ai was unable to make the journey due to the recent birth of her fourth child; Luyen, his mother, My, and Danh’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 Danh and enjoyed sharing similar experiences in raising a child with a cleft condition. This hopeful atmosphere soon gave way to disappointment. Danh’s patient health screening – a critical step in ensuring safe surgical care for all Operation Smile patients – revealed Danh was running a fever. Considering Danh’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 Danh made the next trip together, completing the first leg on a motorbike before completing the 100-kilometer trip via bus. Now Ai experienced the anxiety of her first visit to Hanoi, compounded by the tension leading up to her son’s health screening. This time, Danh was deemed healthy enough to undergo anesthesia and received his life-changing surgery. His parents were unsure of how their family would react when they saw Danh’s new smile for the first time, but they were ecstatic as they made the journey home. Six months later, Ai said the family was overjoyed to witness Danh’s new smile, especially his two older sisters. She added that since his surgery, Danh’s overall health improved and that she can now understand him completely when he speaks.

After making a full recovery from his surgery, Danh 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 have come to an end.

As Ai reflected on Danh’s surgery, she said that she was so thankful to the Operation Smile medical volunteers and supporters who forever changed her son’s life.