I traveled to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, where we had teamed up with an extremely talented group of surgeons, nurses and anesthetists that specialized in incidences of pediatric cleft palates and hair lips. There was a backlog of over 7,000 children needing maxillofacial procedures. The need was overwhelming. I accompanied the doctors to the children’s wards for their pre-op rounds. My heart and attention was drawn to one particular seven-month-old Vietnamese boy. His condition was one of the most forbidding I had ever seen. He suffered a complicated double hair lip, as well as an extremely severe cleft palate. There was so much of the face missing that I could look directly into the child’s sinus cavities. Obviously, the hospital doctors had given the team a most desperate and dramatic case to reconstruct.
As the young mother handed the baby to the surgeon, her eyes and expressions did all the talking. She was literally pleading for someone to help her and her critically disfigured child. Because of the baby’s condition, it was impossible for him to suck. The mother was required to extract the milk from her breasts and use a spoon to feed him. She had to be very careful as she aimed the milk so that it did not spill into the air passageway and drown the child.
I slipped into some surgical scrubs and accompanied the team into the theater with my camera. The surgeon took his pen and drew a diagram of a mouth on the surgery drape that covered the baby’s shoulders. He then took the pen and made reference dots on the baby’s face. I thought as I watched, “He not only needs to be a skilled surgeon, but he also is required to be a sensitive artist, visualizing a perfect mouth all the while he is cutting and stitching that little face.” There was a tremendous amount of concentration, and I could feel the intensity of the situation grow with each slice of the scalpel and each stitch of the curved needle. When it was time for the surgeon to make the new lip pieces to fill in under the restructured nose, he slit open the two large flesh bulbs and began carving the tissue out of them and stretching them across to join the two beneath the nose. It was not just an exterior surface procedure that took place. The skin on the outside had to all fit together, but so did all the pieces of the tissue and muscle underneath the skin. For the bone and marrow needed to restructure the missing palate and gums, bone was extracted from the baby’s hip area.
After more than four hours of intense surgery the job was really beginning to look incredibly good. But, the surgeon was not quite happy with how the last part was coming together. So, he unstitched part of what he had done and reformed the little lip until it came together and matched perfectly. Later that day I went with the doctors to the recovery room. The scene that I encountered next burned a picture into my mind that I will never be able to forget. The little mother of the terribly disfigured baby and her young husband were both in the recovery room.
The baby was their first-born child. He was awake, but not crying . . . just whimpering as he looked around for reassurance from his mommy. The doctor gently handed the baby to his mother, who was smiling from ear to ear as she took her child. Then, with the husband looking over her shoulder, the impact of the occasion slammed her. Her smiles turned to a look of disbelief and I could see her struggling, trying to determine if what she was seeing was for real, or was she just dreaming another haunting and cruel dream about having a perfectly normal baby? She held the little guy tightly to her breast and then pulled him back up and looked straight into his face again. She could not hold the seven months of pent up emotion inside her any longer.
She cried softly for a little while. The tears dropped down on the baby as she held him again to her breast. Then she pulled him back again and looked at him again and saw her own tears on the baby’s body and realized that the moment was not a dream. It was for real.
Far gone now were the moments in the room where the baby was born and she had been handed the child for the first time. It had been there that the horror and disappointment had filled her mind, while at the same time, love for the precious child had filled her heart. Gone now were the long hours of rocking and walking the child, looking down at his face and questioning, “Why was my baby, my very first baby, destined to go through life like this? Did we do something wrong? Are we being punished?” There were never any answers to her questions before. But now, she was holding the beautiful baby of her dreams. She had loved him completely when he was deformed. She now had the beautiful opportunity to love him completely, as he was whole.
The little boy’s brown eyes met the mother’s eyes and he tried to smile. That was more than she could handle. She sobbed. The young father reached into his pocket and pulled out a small dirty handkerchief. He took the rag and began wiping the tears from the mother's face. He quietly cried. I cried freely. The tears seemed to be the telescopes that allowed us to see into heaven. Something special had happened in that recovery room on that hot day in Ho Chi Minh. Jesus, the healer, had come to walk the halls of that hospital and touch the torn hearts of a young Vietnamese peasant couple. As I left the recovery room I could hear the mother begin to softly sing a lullaby to her child . . . or was it angels that I heard singing?