Energetic and talkative, Bui loved preschool.
As he bounced around the playground in his rural Vietnamese community, the 3-year-old paid no mind to his cleft lip while playing ball games and taking turns on the slide.
But whenever young tempers would inevitably flare, Bui’s classmates dealt him cruel reminders of his condition by calling him “sut,” a derogatory term describing someone born with a cleft lip. Bui would react angrily by fighting back, hitting his bullies until they stopped the name-calling.
Incredibly, young Bui never cried in the face of the taunting — a testament to the unconditional love and support of his family. When he was born; his mother, Ai, and father, Luyen, had never seen someone with a cleft lip.
To them, it mattered little compared to the joy of welcoming their third child to the family. Ai’s midwife explained it was not unusual for a child to be born with a cleft lip and that surgery was possible to repair it.
While the local clinic provided support on how to feed Bui — he had no trouble breastfeeding, which can be difficult or impossible for many babies born with cleft lip and cleft palate — the family’s limited financial resources made it impossible for them to afford surgery. Luyen and Ai are subsistence farmers, and the family lives off what they grow.
Their only option for Bui to access care was registering with the local government, which would inform them when a free surgical option became available.
The family was ecstatic when the government agency informed them that Operation Smile was conducting a medical mission in Hanoi — a 2 ½-hour bus ride from their village. While Ai was unable to make the journey due to the recent birth of her fourth child; Luyen, his mother, My, and Bui’s uncle made the nerve-wracking trip to Hanoi with Bui — each person’s first time in a big city.
At the mission hospital, the family was surprised to see many other families with children like Bui and enjoyed sharing similar experiences in raising a child with a cleft condition.
This hopeful atmosphere soon gave way to disappointment.
Bui’s patient health screening — a critical step in ensuring safe surgical care for all Operation Smile patients — revealed Bui was running a fever. Considering Bui’s condition and the week’s surgery caseload, this health hazard meant surgery would not be possible until Operation Smile’s next surgical program returned to Hanoi in four months.
Ai, Luyen and Bui made the next trip together; completing the first leg on a motorbike before completing the 100-kilometer trip via bus. Now Ai experienced the anxiety of her first visit to Hanoi, compounded by the tension leading up to her son’s health screening.
This time, Bui was deemed healthy enough to undergo anesthesia and received his life-changing surgery.
His parents were unsure of how their family would react when they saw Bui's new smile for the first time, but they were ecstatic as they made the journey home.
Six months later, Ai said the family was overjoyed to witness Bui’s new smile, especially his two older sisters. She added that since his surgery, Bui’s overall health improved and that she can now understand him completely when he speaks.
After making a full recovery from his surgery, Bui returned to preschool, which he loves more than ever as a result of his new smile. While he and his friends may still get into the occasional scuffle as young children sometimes do, the bullying and teasing he once endured has come to an end.
As Ai reflected on Bui's surgery, she said that she was so thankful to the Operation Smile medical volunteers and supporters who forever changed her son's life.