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A Smile 58 Years in the Making | Tam

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On a surgical team trip to Quy Nhon, Vietnam, we met Tam, a man who has been waiting 58 years to have his cleft lip repaired. He has been going to other surgical team missions since he was 24 years old, yet has always been turned down for surgery because they only treated children. After finding out that we treat adults as well, and that he qualified for surgery, it’s no surprise he looked so happy.

Tam lives in An Nhon, less than 50 kilometers from Quy Nhon. His mother died when he was a few months old, and his father died a year after that, so he grew up passed amongst various relatives. He dropped out of school in the third grade because his cleft was growing larger and people teased him. Since then he has helped his family in the fields.

Speaking is very hard for Tam, and even his relatives struggle to understand him. He is a remarkably striking man. He holds his head high and nodded sagely at the volunteers each time they passed him. On the day of his surgery, he kept smiling and watching every move of the nurses and doctors passing by, waiting for his turn to be called in to the OR. When told it was his turn in five minutes, he grinned. Dr. Jorge Palacios, our Surgical Outreach Program director in Ecuador who traveled to Vietnam on the trip, performed Tam’s surgery, which went beautifully.

After Tam was moved to the recovery room, many of the volunteers went in to watch him wake up and witness his reaction to the massive change in his appearance. It was beautiful. Everyone cheered as he held up a mirror, looked at himself very carefully, and nodded proudly. His eyes filled with tears as he kept staring and staring into the mirror.

He then asked for a comb and combed his hair very straight and requested a cloth to clean up his face so he would look as handsome as possible for photos. He is very proud of his appearance and wanted to pose for photos. Everyone took many photos of him, and his pride as he stared directly into the camera lenses was amazing. Many of the volunteers became emotional, as anesthesiologist Dr. George Gregory said, “This is exactly why we do what we do.”

Tam said he was worried his wife wouldn’t recognize him now, and in response, volunteer surgeon Dr. Bill McClure said through a translator, “And maybe your girlfriends won’t, either!” which made everyone laugh. The volunteers repeatedly told him how handsome he looked, and he nodded in agreement in between gazes into the mirror.

Jorge came into the recovery room, and a team member told Tam in Vietnamese that this was his surgeon. He pointed to Jorge and pointed to his lip, as if to ask, “Him?” and he reached for Jorge’s hand. He and Jorge sat on the bed together and looked at before and after photos on Jorge’s phone, as Tam rested his head on Jorge’s shoulder.

Tam and his nephew and sister-in-law went up to the ward after he was released from the recovery room, and his nephew pushed him in a wheelchair, beaming with pride as everyone they passed in the hospital stared at him. The people near the OR had seem him coming and going and were so surprised by how different he looked. They ran into Jorge on the way, and in the elevator up to the ward, Jorge pulled out his phone and made every stranger on the elevator look at the before photos of Tam, to demonstrate what a huge change he had undergone.

His sister-in-law said when she saw Tam after his surgery she felt very happy, and that everyone is surprised by how handsome he is and always has been behind his large cleft lip. She said they really appreciate ReSurge’s work and don’t know how they could ever repay us. We are thrilled that we had the opportunity to provide the care for which Tam has waited for so many years, and grateful to our volunteers who have given him his new smile.

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