A smile story at Hue surgical program

Ms. Ho Thi Ngu came for the screening of Operation Smile mission in Thua Thien Hue at almost noon, carrying all sorts of things under her arm, along with her two young children. The 6-year-old son has a cleft lip, but his face is still bright. She said that they took the bus from 5:00 a.m., and it took them 6 hours to get here. “This morning, I didn’t have breakfast yet, I just bought a bag of longans to ease my hunger”, she said.

The family come from Huong Hoa district, Quang Tri province, and are Van Kieu people. The father was working far away in Binh Duong for a few days so he couldn’t come back. She quitted her farm work and sent her 8-year-old eldest child to the grandmother to make her way here looking for an opportunity to treat her son’s cleft lip. She confided that she was very scared when she came here. She never dared to let her child have surgery because she was afraid of the risks during the surgery. But when seeing her little son being teased by his friends and called ugly, then the boy just got home crying with his mother, she loves him and feels very sorry for her baby. Seeing the fact that a few other children were as unlucky as her son but had now been cured, while her child had not yet, she made up her mind to take her child to the mission.

Come to Operation Smile’s surgical mission at Hue Odontal Stomatological Hospital, they can receive dedicated examination and advices from doctors. Furthermore, the program also supports accommodation during the waiting days for surgery and travel expenses, so she was more confident taking her child into the operating room. Sitting outside the OR, the mother’s eyes were filled with the complex of worry, joy and hope for her child’ s new smile. And as the biggest reward for a long journey, Dung’s smile was perfectly healed after the surgery. So, from now on, he will be a more confident boy, no longer afraid of being shunned by friends or the society, his life will be much brighter and deserving of a basic thing that all children should have – the SMILE.

Irish Father Adopted A Vietnamese Child Born With Clef Lip And Palate

Dang Son was born with a cleft lip and cleft palate and abandoned outside an orphanage in Hai Duong. His life turned into a new page when a foreign man from Ireland wanted to adopt Son from the moment he first saw the baby in pictures.

John Hennigan, an English teacher at British Vietnamese International School (BVIS) Hanoi, recalled that moment: “It was heart-wrenching when seeing the baby’s incomplete smile. I immediately realized that he was the child I wanted to adopt,”

The first time they met was the day Dang Son was taken to the Vietnam – Cuba Friendship Hospital for his first surgery to repair the cleft lip in the program of Operation Smile Vietnam. Having undergone various surgeries for Dang Son and a complicated four-month process, adopting Dang Son was indeed a journey showing the unfailing determination of John: “In my life, I have never done anything as difficult as adopting Liam. The biggest hurdle was trying to prove I was capable and deserved to become a candidate to adopt, and in the past, I used to obtain an objection letter from Ireland.”

The miracle finally happened in June 2021, Dang Son with the new name Liam, was officially adopted by his father John Hennigan, and started a happier, more loving, and brighter life.

It’s not usual when you hear of a foreigner adopting a child born with facial deformities. But it happened and sent the message to people to keep believing in the miracles in this life. Maybe you will be the one to make the change, who creates heart-touching stories when you never stop loving.

The mother in a wheelchair

In the last surgical mission of 2021, before the covid wave caused provinces and cities to apply social distancing and lockdown measures, there was a mother with a great strength who traveled from far distance to bring her child to the mission.

Y Chinh lives with her son in Diek Not village, a small village of the Ca Dong people, in Ngoc Tem commune, Kon Plong district – a remote mountainous region of Kon Tum province, bordering Quang Ngai. Surely everyone remembers the historic flood at the end of 2020. Ngoc Tem commune was the heavily affected locality, one of the places suffered the most serious landslides among dozens of landslides on the Truong Son Dong route.

The storm passed, the road was repaired, and Operation Smile Vietnam’s program came to Quang Ngai. Even though she has to use a wheelchair, Ms. Y Chinh decided to take her 17-month-old son, A Quoc Bao, to Quang Ngai Obstetrics and Children’s Hospital, hoping the doctors could heal his lips.

The image of a mother in a wheelchair bringing her child, checking all the procedures, taking care of her baby, and taking him into the operating room are truly touching and unforgettable for Operation Smile’s volunteer team. The surgery was forty minutes long, also forty minutes full of hope but a lot of anxiety for the mother when she put all her hopes behind the operating room door. Bao’s mother had never gone that far before because his mother’s legs were not as normal, and the family lives among  the rolling hills and mountains making traveling even much more difficult. And more than anyone else, a mother understands that a physical defect, no matter how small, will make her child’s future more difficult and bumpy like what she had to go through. More than anything, Ms. Y Chinh just wanted Bao to be able to eat normally, go to class confidently, and grow up with the dream of overcoming the high mountains of her hometown, something his mother had never dared to dream of.

For Ms. Y Chinh, the journey to find her child’s smile is probably the greatest journey in her life. Luckily, she and her son went through that journey with the support of doctors, volunteers, and the whole community. We can only describe that journey with one word – LOVE!

Parents’ treasure!

The happiness of Kim Thuy’s family after being refused surgery twice

Mr. Hung’s daughter from Tien Giang had a cleft lip on one side. He works as a carpenter, and his wife runs a small, simple coffee shop. His family had to endure a lot to survive during the Covid epidemic. Luckily, a cousin introduced Operation Smile and registered Kim Thuy, their tiny 1-year-old daughter. The day the couple received a phone call for a medical appointment, they cried tears of joy. But soon after their happiness is followed by the worry about the money to cover the cost of their child’s lip treatment, forcing them to pawn their motorbike – the most valuable tool to make a living.

“Why you have to pawn your motorbike while this surgery is totally free?”

He laughed and shook his head: “Oh my god, to come up here for free surgery, I also have to prepare money to spend in Saigon. But I don’t have money to buy a bus ticket to get here, and money to eat and stay for a few days. So I pawned the motorbike so I could have money to take her up here for the screening.”

3 hours on the bus, 2 hours waiting to complete the application, the whole family’s effort traveling long distances, the waiting time, the risk of pawning the motorbike but the results were not as expected. Thuy had high white blood cell count so she didn’t qualify for the surgery. They had to make another appointment next week to do the test again. So the family need to made another trip to Saigon. The tiny baby just weighing 7 kg and 60 cm height continued testing but she was too young and afraid of the needle pain, so the medical staff had to be very careful to take her blood. The results were still the same, her white blood cell count is still not stable enough for the surgery. The family got back again with disappointment. By the third time, the white blood cell count was high, but after thorough rounds of testing, echocardiography and pediatric examination, the baby has been accepted for the surgery.

When the surgery was scheduled for Kim Thuy, Ms. Quyen – her mother – tried to take care of her more carefully so that she would be healthy to face the difficulties ahead. On the day of surgery, the couple was extremely worried, but could only stay outside the operating room. During a long day, when Thuy woke up, her parents finally released when seeing their child’s new face. They know that all their efforts were well paid then. When Thuy got back for a follow-up examination a week after surgery, her wound was gradually recovering extremely well. This is probably the greatest joy in 2022 before entering the new year for Kim Thuy’s family. Thuy’s Smile is now the greatest treasure that the parents hold in hands.

Khiem’s smile – Parents’ dream comes true!

Khiem is a boy from Hai Phong, born in a family with parents who love him so much. When he was just born, his mother was extremely devastated when she saw her child was not as healthy as other children. Khiem had a cleft lip that making it extremely difficult for him to eat and drink milk. His parents were endlessly worried about what their child would be like, how to treat him, what he would look like when he grow up, how people would discriminate against him… Luckily, Khiem’s parents learned about Operation Smile’s surgical misision, right at the time when the medical experts and donors from the United States came to work in Hanoi. Knowing this, his parents decided to take him to the hospital in time for the screening. The 45 minutes Khiem spent in the operating room is also 45 minutes for parents sitting still, both afraid of their child’s pain and looking forward to a successful surgery. After the surgery, Khiem’s ​​parents were truly overwhelmed with happiness. They kept looking at the beautiful face and smile of their child who has just been healed and is now a very handsome Khiem.


Khiem’s ​​story is also one of tens of thousands of stories of children and parents who desperated when their child was born with a facial deformity, until the child received surgery with good quality medical treatment. At Operation Smile, with each child healed, we know that we have an additional motivation to continue the journey of smiles for Vietnamese children.

So’s story -Thank you for believing us!

Cu Thi So is a H’Mong child born with a cleft lip and palate, living in a remote area of Lao Cai province. In 2020, with the help of Teacher Quyet, So was fortunate to meet Operation Smile and receive free surgery to fix her cleft lip. However, So still needed to treat her cleft palate to improve her daily life and communication.


Two years later, thanks to the care and persuasion of Teacher Quyet and Tien Lam from Operation Smile team, So’s family agreed to bring her to Hanoi to continue the surgical process. However, because both So and her father were infected with Covid-19, they had to return to Lao Cai, carrying many worries and frustrations. A year later, in March 2023, Operation Smile organized the medical program in Hanoi. Coincidentally, before the screening day, So’s case were known and supported by Operation Smile’s supporters to bring them to Hanoi. Therefore, So’s family agreed to let her sign up for the final surgery.


On the way to bus station to go back home, So’s father choked with happiness and held Lam’s hand tightly as a way to express gratitude. The joy of So’s father, of the Operation Smile team, the doctors, and nurses who helped treat on her, and above all, all came from the joy of everyone working together to achieve a miraculous thing: bringing NORMALCY to So.

K’ Quý – A miracle of love

The first time I saw K’ Quy is when he was sitting with his grandmother in the hallway of the hospital. His innocent eyes immediately caught us. The naïve eyes which showed nothing but sadness, confusion and fear. K’ Quy’s grandmother told us that even though K’Quy has turned 7 years old already but he cannot speak Vietnamese native language and he could only communicate with his grandmother.

K’ Quy is from a poor family in a remote area in Lam Ha District, Lam Dong Province. His grandmother described to us about his house which is not exactly “a house” because it is almost empty which only has the most basic furniture without television and vehicles at all. K’ Quy’s family has a small piece of land for cultivation. They used to harvest crops once year, however, in the past few year, due to the harsh weather, their life is more and more difficult. His parents, therefore, must do whatever they got hired to earn extra money to make ends meet.

K’ Quy often stays at home alone. Sometimes the neighbors helps to look after K’ Quy because his brother goes to school while his parents go to work outside all day long. Grandmother also lives quite far away and cannot visit K’ Quy frequently. This time, knowing about Operation Smile Mission, his grandmother left behind her works to accompany K’ Quy to Ho Chi Minh City. More than everything, she only wants K’ Quy to have a beautiful smile like every children.

K’ Quy’s grandmother shared that although K’ Quy pronounces very slow but he is very smart and intelligent. She hoped that after surgery, K’ Quy could go to school like his brother and other friends. However, after just a few minute, she hesitated and said that “K’ Quy’s parents also want to let him go to school, but I’m afraid that they could not afford the tuition fee for two children!” Those desperate words cannot get out of our head.

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.