Ready to face a new life

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Compassion crosses seven seas to shrink football-sized tumor on boy’ face

Like any 13-year-old, Pham Hoang Son was enjoying himself, playing his iPod and DS games until the airplane landed at the Hanoi-based Noi Bai International Airport early this month.

After collecting his luggage, Son hugged his parents and posed for pictures with his parents and relatives who came to pick him up.

No one could hold back their tears, for this was no ordinary homecoming.

Son was coming back with a realistic chance of living a full life, without the specter of dying in a few years, unable to breathe because of a football sized tumor on his face.

In April 2006, a Canadian philanthropic group visited an orphanage in Hai Duong Province, some 30 kilometers to the southeast of Hanoi, and found Son standing behind a group of children.

He was trying to hide a huge vascular malformation on the left side of his face, said Kate Maslen, the then director of Children’s Bridge Foundation.

Financial straits had forced Son’s parents to send him to the orphanage in 2004. Son had carried the life-threatening malformation on his face since birth.

Son almost died when he was eight years old. A piece of bamboo from the mat he was sleeping on poked a hole in his cheek, and he started to bleed in his sleep. A nurse was able to stop the bleeding, but they didn’t think he would live. The venous malformation was also growing in his throat.

It was likely that before Son turned 20 years old, he would have died because he wouldn’t be able to breathe.

During the trip to the orphanage, Kate Maslen of Children’s Bridge Foundation took a photo of Son and spread it around in Canada, hoping she would be able to get medical help for him.

A Canadian couple living in Halifax, Alan and Olwyn Walter, agreed to adopt Son and brought him to Canada to seek treatment.

A grassroots campaign began, supported by different US and Canadian people and organizations as well as many of the Vietnamese diaspora.

More than US$500,000 was raised to help Son, but it almost came to naught when the Toronto-based Sick Kids Hospital declined to treat him in the fall of 2007.

But Dr. John Mullikan, a world-renowned specialist in reconstructive surgery at the Boston’s Children’s Hospital, agreed to take on the case.

“I have an abiding interest in the field of vascular anomalies… The story of his coming from Vietnam, staying with a caring Canadian family made it impossible not to try and help the boy,” Mullikan told Thanh Nien Weekly in an email interview.

Son was treated with a combination of sclerotherapy [injection of irritating solution to shrink the abnormal venous channels] and surgical resection of the expanded face and mouth, Mullikan said.

With his last surgery in January, Son had been under the knife for a total of 26 medical procedures.

Mullikan and his staff eventually succeeded in saving Son’s life. They were also able to remove a lot of the venous malformation.

Mullikan said it would be impossible to remove all of it.

“However, we were able to diminish its volume sufficiently to relieve the pressure on his teeth and improve his ability to chew food. Also, diminishing the volume of blood in the venous malformation will lower his chances of developing a systemic bleeding disorder.”

Mullikan said he was confident that the anomaly would no longer threaten his life and it is now time for Son to rest.

“Foremost, he just looks better and has new self-confidence as he enters his teenage period.”

Home away from home

Olwyn Walter, the foster mother of Son, said she would want for Son the same things she would for her two daughters.

“We will ensure that Son has enough money to attend school and continue his education in whatever he chooses. Son will need more medical treatment in the future and my family will help to make that possible,” Walter said.

“We will never forget Son and will do our best to stay in touch with him and to help him.”

During his stay in Canada, the Walter family taught Son Vietnamese at home and discovered that he was very good at math and athletics.

Son has returned to live with his family in a small village in Hai Duong Province and started attending school this week.

“I am very happy to be home,” he said.

He has been able to listen to music loaded from the iPod given to him by Laureen Harper, the wife of the Canadian Prime Minister. She chose the gift knowing Son would be spending a lot of time in hospital waiting rooms.

Rosemary Thompson, the current director of Children’s Bridge Foundation said: “Well, now the waiting is over.”

Reported by An Dien

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