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Humanitarian Mission for Deutsche Cleft-Kinderhilfe: In action for children with cleft lip and palate in Vietnam

Humanitarian Mission for Deutsche Cleft-Kinderhilfe: In action for children with cleft lip and palate in Vietnam

The two directors of the MCLINIC, PD Dr. Dr. Denys J. Loeffelbein and PD Dr. Daniel Lonic, traveled to Vietnam for the fourth time for a week on a volunteer basis to operate on children with cleft malformations of the oral and maxillofacial region after a two-year break due to corona.

A grueling, emotional and educational start to the Advent season lies behind our doctors. During the one-week mission from December 4 – 10, 2022, cleft children were operated on by a team of doctors from Germany, Taiwan, Japan and Vietnam on two operating days each in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). The mission was divided into two surgery phases in Hanoi (December 5 and 6) and Saigon (December 8 and 9). On December 10, our doctors returned to Germany. The costs for flight and accommodation for the doctors were borne by the aid organization Deutsche Cleft-Kinderhilfe (DCKH), the time commitment was voluntary. In addition, the trip was accompanied by a professional photographer for the first time. Philipp Bachhuber also volunteered his time.

Life-changing for everyone involved

Mockery, exclusion and social isolation is what children with cleft lip and palate have to experience. It is considered one of the most common congenital malformations worldwide. But affected children and parents also struggle with functional consequences: The interaction of the lip, tongue and palate muscles is disturbed, and there is also an altered position of the tongue, which shifts backwards into the cleft. Serious impairments are the result: swallowing and breathing, early phonation, and the timbre of the voice are affected.

The operation, which costs the equivalent of around 300 euros, is not covered by health insurance in Vietnam. Parents usually have to find the money themselves, which is an insurmountable problem for many families. In addition, there is a lack of medical infrastructure and specialized personnel. Aid organizations such as the DCKH and the Noordhoff Craniofacial Foundation (NCF) fill this gap in care by providing care for these children in Vietnam within the framework of voluntary projects and establishing long-term structures that solve the problem of underuse in the long term. The possibility of such treatment changes many things for the children and they get the chance for a “normal” life.

The project in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City was initiated by PD Dr. Daniel Lonic,who worked at the craniofacial center of Chang Gung Memorial Hospital in Taiwan from 2014 to 2016 and had already participated in various volunteer missions with the NCF to treat cleft children, during which he became aware of the problem.

Back in Germany, he contacted the Deutschen Cleft Kinderhilfe and initiated the project, whose honorary management he subsequently took over. Together with his colleague PD Dr. Dr. Denys Loeffelbein, he has been traveling to Vietnam every year since then, with the exception of the corona years 2020 and 2021.

These missions regularly bring together an international team of doctors, who also work to expand the craniofacial center, train doctors and therapists, provide speech therapy and psychological support for affected children, and educate the community. In this way, everyone is working to improve the lives and environments of many people. And “that gives me a lot personally,” says Dr. Loeffelbein.

A mission full of ups and downs: Vietnam 2022

Many months of planning lie behind PD Dr. Dr. Denys J. Loeffelbein and PD Dr. Daniel Lonic. And although this is the fourth time they have traveled to Vietnam, each mission is different and they are always faced with new challenges – medical, logistical and personal. A curious fact: they do not need a visa for a humanitarian mission!

On social media, the mission can be followed “up close and personal.” Reports, photo spreads and reels were published daily on Instagram, Facebook and LinkedIn during the mission and can still be viewed. And so a broad public was able to learn that in a project like this, even getting there is the first challenge. The journey to Hanoi did not go quite as planned. After flight cancellations and delays, the doctors had to take a detour via Bangkok. But when they arrived 20 hours later than planned, the next bad news followed: a suitcase did not make it to Hanoi. In it contained: Cuddly toys for the children, instruments and a pair of surgical glasses. There was no time to mourn this circumstance….

The first exhausting day of surgery is behind the medical team. For many children, today’s operation marks the start of a new, easier life. The goal of the treatment of a cleft lip and palate is not only the best possible result in terms of aesthetics. Functional impairments should also be treated accordingly. There is still a long way to go before they reach a certain level of normality. In some cases, further interventions are necessary and many of them even have to learn to speak properly first. But an important step has been taken. And the doctors are also done and see to it that they get a surgical hood full of sleep.

More surgeries are scheduled for the second day of surgery, than on the first. Every operation is a new challenge and the hospital in Hanoi is not as well equipped as a hospital in Germany. This makes the working conditions for the total of five doctors from different countries sometimes very difficult. Nevertheless, for 27 infants, school children and young adults in Hanoi, an easier life has now begun. And our doctors always find some time to share their knowledge with their local colleagues. Dr. Lonic is very pleased with the progress made in recent years. “The people here are already very good at performing the operations. However, there is still room for improvement, especially in the indication…” .

On the third day of the trip, there will be one last visit and a press conference. Because that is also part of it: Our stay at the Vietnam National Children’s Hospital in Hanoi ends with a press conference organized by our Taiwanese partner organization, the Noordhoff Craniofacial Foundation (NCF). Dr. Lonic, Dr. Lan, our contact physician in Hanoi, the director of the hospital, the secretary of the Taiwanese economic representation and Prof. Lo, Dr. Lonic’s mentor during his time as a fellow in Taiwan, sit together on the podium, present the project with Deutsche Cleft Kinderhilfe and answer questions from the press. Several TV stations and news papers have come to report on the doctors’ work.

Progress in the sustainable treatment of LKG patients at the hospital will also be presented. In his statement, Dr. Lonic expresses his appreciation for the cooperation with the Vietnam National Childrens Hospital, which, incidentally, is the largest children’s hospital in Vietnam. However, he also emphasizes that it still needs more support to develop further.

Particularly touching is the speech of a mother whose daughter was helped during the mission. She also expressed her heartfelt thanks on behalf of the other families and patients. Such experiences give the medical team new strength for the strenuous operations that are scheduled for the very next day in Saigon! Because it goes directly further in the airplane.

In Ho Chi Minh City, many children and their relatives are already waiting in the hospital. They sometimes travel for days and hope for the chance to be operated on by our team. But if the little patients have an infection or are too small, for example, they cannot be operated on. The risk is then simply too great that complications will arise during the operation… Safety always comes first, and the local doctors can also perform the operations at a later time.

On the third day of surgery, Dr. Lonic and Dr. Loeffelbein are once again faced with completely new challenges in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). They have to get used to the new environment and the new team, and among the patients are also some babies aged 4-8 months. With such tiny humans, surgery is especially tricky. Originally, 12 cases were scheduled in four rooms. However, the hospital continues to operate normally, and emergencies naturally take priority. Therefore, they can only operate in three rooms.

The last day of the operation is a tough one: 18 operations are scheduled. Among them again some complicated cases, very small babies and also another operation for Dat. Our doctors already met the boy in 2018 on a mission in Vietnam, but unfortunately had to realize that previous operations had gone wrong and they had no possibility to help the boy in Vietnam. Therefore, they invited Dat to Munich and operated on him here. That was four years ago now and Dat is now 14 years old.

Dr. Lonic and Dr. Loeffelbein now have the opportunity to see him again in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City). He has traveled especially with his mother and our doctors can perform another operation to further improve his situation. They also brought a gift from Munich for their friend Dat:

The freshly operated and weakened boy cannot quite show his joy at that moment, but the video footage gives an idea of how valuable the friendship of the doctors is for the boy.

On day five, there is a final medical visit.The international team consists of three surgeons and two anesthesiologists around Prof.

Lun-Jou Lov of the renowned craniofacial center at Chang Gung Memorial Hospital in Taiwan, Dr. Pang-Yun Chou of Taiwan and Dr. Yoshitsugu Hattori of Japan, and PD Dr. Dr. Denys J. Loeffelbein and PD Dr. Daniel Lonic of the MCLINIC.

In addition, there are the extremely competent Taiwanese operating room and anesthesia nurses, translators and Linus Lee as a representative of the NCF. However, not only doctors, orthodontists, surgical assistants and nurses are on duty at the two project sites. Speech therapists are also present.
Prof. Lun-Jou Lo was also instrumental in shaping the career of Dr. Daniel Lonic. Finding a mentor in his professional career who shares his knowledge unconditionally and with love is an invaluable fortune. Dr. Lonic served at the world’s largest craniofacial center at Chang Gung Memorial Hospital in Taiwan from 2014 to 2016. Here, he specialized in the treatment of congenital malformations of the face and skull, such as cleft lip and palate, and participated in NCF missions to various Asian countries such as Cambodia, Vietnam, and Indonesia. These missions had a great impact on him, as did his mentor during his time in Taiwan and on the missions – Prof. Lun-Jou Lo is one of the most well-known and experienced LCG surgeons in the world.

On this year’s mission, he meets him again after 3 years and they finally work together again. But as Professor Lo says, the benefit is mutual”, both sides can learn from each other. You can’t see his smile behind the surgical mask at that moment, but the squinted corners of his eyes give it away.

Karaoke is part of a good celebration in Asia and also in Vietnam. And so, at the farewell party, Dr. Lonic sings You raise me up, by Josh Groban, together with his mentor.

With this good feeling, many new impressions and far too little sleep, our doctors travel from tropical Ho Chi Minh City to cold Advent Germany.

They were able to meet old friends again and make new ones. And the most important thing: to give a smile to over 60 little patients!
They will live on this for a long time to come, to be able to feel so closely why they became doctors.

About Deutsche Cleft Kinderhilfe

Since 2002, Deutsche Cleft Kinderhilfe e. V. has been working to ensure that children with cleft lip and palate (“cleft children”) have access to safe, qualified and comprehensive treatment. With this goal in mind, Deutsche Cleft Kinderhilfe finances the necessary operations and follow-up therapies in many developing countries. More info at http://www.spaltkinder.org

Donation Account
Deutsche Cleft Kinderhilfe e.V.
Bank für Sozialwirtschaft
IBAN DE46 2512 0510 0008 4842 00

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