Changing Families: How Operation International Repaired Cleft Lips for a Set of Triplets

September 25, 2023

Each surgery performed by Operation International’s medical teams has the chance not just to change the life of the patient, but that of an entire family. On a recent trip to Vietnam, that impact multiplied threefold.

Team Cleft Repair had the remarkable opportunity during their maiden mission to provide medical care for a set of young triplets boys, each of whom were born with varying degrees of cleft lip and palate. The successful repair surgeries not only offered a brighter future for each baby, but an incredible new trajectory for the family as a whole.

“Thank you to the medical team and the members of the Operation International team for supporting me and my children both physically and mentally,” the triplets’ mother wrote after the surgeries. “Having gone through a difficult journey, I still cry a lot, but they are now happy tears.”

"A Feat From Birth to Surgery"

The triplets’ mother was first connected to Team Cleft Repair in a support group for parents raising infants with cleft lip and palate when her babies were mere weeks old, according to Team Leader Myhanh Pham Nguyen. In the group, she shared the “formidable challenges of raising triplets with this condition,” including societal stigma and the financial strain.

“I felt compelled to extend our support, for our team’s upcoming mission coincided with the time when the boys would become eligible for surgery,” Myhanh said.

To help prepare, Team Cleft Repair sent several care packages to the family, including specially-designed cleft lip and palate bottles, infant formula, and matching outfits for the three boys. The assistance would help the babies reach a healthy weight for the procedure, which requires patients to be 10 pounds and at least 10 weeks old before surgery.

By the time Team Cleft Repair arrived at Vietnam the week of September 10, the triplets were nearly five months old and ready for their life-changing procedure.

Their family traveled from their home in a remote mountainous area in Vietnam to join the medical team at Hue University Medicine Hospital. According to the triplets’ mother, the generosity of Operation International in assisting with travel, food, accommodations and other expenses was instrumental in making the journey possible.

“It seems like all we [had] to do [was] show up, leaving the rest for the team to take care of,” she wrote. “Dedicated, enthusiastic, thoughtful, especially the group leader Myhanh Pham Nguyen and Mr. Phi Long–If I hadn’t met you two my children and I would not be here today.”

The first of the three boys up for surgery was the middle child, who was the first patient seen by Team Cleft Repair on their second day of surgeries. It was clear in the mother’s face after that first surgery what a huge impact the procedures would have beyond the operating room, Myhanh said.

Over the next few days, the two remaining triplets would receive their own successful repair surgeries, offering a curious new challenge to their dedicated medical team.

“Prior to the surgery, we had relied upon the visual distinction of their cleft lips to differentiate them,” Myhanh wrote. “This situation presents us with a unique dilemma, as the medical team is now tasked with developing alternative methods of identification to tell the triplets apart.”

A Learning Experience

In addition to the impact on the triplets and their family, their surgeries—along with other young patients throughout the week—also offered a learning opportunity for the local hospital staff.

To intubate one of the triplets, Team Cleft Repair used an infant-sized video laryngoscope, a tool that, along with vein finders, the team had brought with them and later donated to the host hospital. According to the hospital, Team Cleft Repair's ability to operate on patients as young as 10 weeks old during their mission marked the youngest patients to ever have surgery at the hospital. Young patients often pose a challenge for intubation and starting an IV.

Plus, the Operation International team was able to train the staff in the appropriate use of the laryngoscope to help with future surgeries on young patients.

A Family Affair

The triplet boys were far from the only family forever impacted by Team Cleft Repair’s maiden mission to Vietnam. Over the course of the five-day mission, the team would complete an amazing 40 surgeries, including several on members of the same family.

Among the family’s changed by the trip were a pair of brothers, a mother-son pair, a set of sisters–and, of course, the newfound family forged by the medical mission among the Operation International team members.

"Just as these families support one another through trials and tribulations, our team members stand united, reinforcing the importance of collaboration, empathy, and compassion,” Myhanh wrote. “Our mission serves as a beacon of hope, reminding us that, like the families we assist, we too are a family bound by a shared purpose - to bring smiles and a brighter future to those in need.”

Team Cleft Repair operated on 40 total patients during their time in Vietnam.