American surgeon helps poor Vietnamese patients face the world

By Thuy Vi   December 13, 2016 | 11:19 am GMT+7
American surgeon helps poor Vietnamese patients face the world
Dr. McKay McKinnon checks a patient after conducting a series of surgeries to remove his giant face tumor at Vinmec Hospital in Hanoi. Photo courtesy of Vinmec

Dr. McKay McKinnon has removed facial tumors for dozens of Vietnamese.

Nguyen Van Thuan, 27, can now talk normally for the first time in years. Within months, he will have a very high chance of getting his face back.

Chicago-based surgeon McKay McKinnon, who earned global headlines after successfully removing a 90-kilogram leg tumor from a Vietnamese man in 2012, has worked his magic again on Thuan and around 20 other patients with tumors in Vietnam this month.

He spent around a week at Vinmec and Viet Duc Hospital in Hanoi and another week at the University Medical Center in Ho Chi Minh City, performing surgeries for free, including one to remove 60 percent of Thuan’s tumor. He is expected to return in April next year for a follow-up surgery.

The man was diagnosed with a facial tumor at six years old. Six years later, he received a surgery at a leading public hospital in Hanoi.

But it kept growing after that, taking over the right side of his face and affecting his eyes, nose and mouth. The family was too poor to ever send him to hospital again.

Thuan spent years selling toothpicks around the streets in northern provinces, the only job he could probably find with his appearance, to take care of his 4-year-old daughter.

His wife, whom he knew through a matchmaker, left when the girl was eight months old.

Local media reports brought Dr. McKinnon to him.

McKinnon said he came to Vietnam first in late 2011 to check on Nguyen Duy Hai, a man with “very gigantic, very complex” tumor on his leg. Canada-based Virtual Medical Miracle Network connected him to Vietnam on request of the U.S.’s Tree of Life International.

He came back in January 2012, and with colleagues at FV Hospital in HCMC, performed a 10-hour procedure to remove the 90-kilogram tumor from Hai’s leg, a case that made headlines worldwide.

Hai had lived with the tumor since the age of four. Two years after the successful surgery, he died at 33 due to unrelated respiratory failure.

Another important case is Le Trung Tuan, an 18-year-old boy whom he first examined in 2013 and performed the fourth surgery on early this month.

Tuan's facial tumor has destroyed a part of his skull, compressed optic nerves, and started to affect his pituitary gland, which influences growth of bones, sexual maturity and general metabolism.

Dr. McKinnon and doctors in Hanoi, who also contributed free work, managed to remove the tumor without affecting his eyes and brain.

He said as patients like Tuan need more than one surgery, he has come back to Vietnam every year.

This month marked his eighth mission in Vietnam, treating patients with neurofibromatosis who mostly are in their 20s and 30s. One patient in HCMC is only four.

“There are patients all over the world with these problems. But Vietnam is a very welcoming place, the hospitals are high standard for surgeries that are complicated. It’s not the kind of thing that I can easily do in a small town in central America, for example,” he said, sitting in an examination room at the University Medical Center last Friday afternoon.

He let Vietnamese doctors take part in all the surgeries, had some of them filmed as materials and also held lectures.

“There are many skilled surgeons in Vietnam. And yet part of my responsibility I feel is to show them how to take care of patients they are not familiar with, particularly big tumor, difficult tumor of the face, and head, and craniofacial conditions,” he said.

Dr. Nguyen Anh Tuan, head of the Plastic and Cosmetic Surgery Department at the University Medical Center, who participated in many surgeries, said McKinnon is a highly skilled person to learn from.

“We have tried our best so that doctors in Vietnam can learn from Dr. McKinnon through his lectures and practice,” he said.

But high skills and good medical equipment are not the only factors that have made up the successful story.

There has been a lot of work to raise funds for the patients.

Dr. Tuan said his hospital has taken measures to minimize the cost of the surgeries, but the medical fees for each patient still range around $500. The cost for some patients in Hanoi reached several thousand dollars.

Thuan, with the big face tumor, could only go through a $6,500-procedure at Vinmec hospital after receiving donations thanks to local media’s efforts.

Dr. McKinnon, whose visits were arranged and sponsored by several organizations, paid for some of the surgeries.

He started a foundation called Surgery SOS this year, which has received support from people and foundations in Australia, Canada and the U.S., and currently treats Vietnam’s patients as the primary beneficiaries.

“Raising funds is not something I’m accustomed to, but we have to do that,” McKinnon said.

“Like everywhere in the world, it’s difficult for poor people, and even people who are not poor to get major surgical medical care, as it is here.”

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