A New Face: Girl Free of 12-Pound Tumor

For the first time since her surgery in April, a 15-year-old Vietnamese girl appeared before reporters, who were gathered at University of Miami/Jackson Memorial Medical Center. And this time, she was free of the horrific 12-pound facial tumor that had threatened to end her young life.

Now, according to the girl's doctors, Robert Marx and Jesus Gomez, her dream to attend school for the first time in her native country may be in sight.

Lai Thi Dao suffered for more than 10 years with a slowly growing tumor known as a Schwannoma. The non-cancerous tumor had gradually consumed the lower part of her face. And as it grew, normal tasks such as talking, eating, drinking and sleeping became increasingly difficult.

Fortunately for Lai, the International Kids Fund learned of her situation and made arrangements for the girl to come to the United States in April for surgery, which cost $107,000.

Dr. Phan Nguyen of Jackson Memorial Medical Center, translating for Lai's mother Tuyet Thi, said that the entire family is grateful for the procedure, which likely saved the girl's life.

"[Tuyet] is very touched by the whole experience," he said. "She said that she is very happy that the surgery went very well, and she says that she does not know how to say thank you to Dr. Gomez and Dr. Marx for saving her daughter's life."

"The first thing that she is going to do for Lai is send her to school," Phan said. "She is dying to go to school -- that has been one of her dreams since she was little."

Tumor Would Have Killed Girl

The unusual nature of Lai's tumor may only have been matched by the marathon 14-hour surgery required to remove the facial growth.

Once the operation was complete, doctors determined that the tumor weighed 12 pounds, 9.9 ounces -- about one-fifth of the girl's weight -- and may well have been the largest example of its type ever seen.

The tumor started out as little more than a cyst on Lai's tongue when she was 3 years old. At that stage, surgery to remove the growth would have been quick, cheap and relatively painless.

Vietnamese Girl Tumor Experience Rare

In fact, these tumors are sometimes seen in the United States as well, though they seldom grow larger than the size of a marble or golf ball before they are removed.

Because Dao had little access to medical care where she lived, however, the tumor went untreated.

Had she not received the surgery, said Marx, professor of surgery and chief of the division of oral and maxillofacial surgery at the University of Miami/Jackson Memorial Medical Center, "she would have died within a year after we first saw her."

The cause of death would have been suffocation, as the crushing weight of the tumor on her chest and lungs would have eventually made breathing impossible.

"The tumor would have continued to grow slowly and relentlessly, and she would not have made it past April or May of 2009," Marx said.

The surgery, too, had its fair share of risks. Gomez, an oral and maxillofacial surgeon at the University of Miami, said that the fact that the tumor had been growing for so long meant that it contained large blood vessels. During the surgery, he said, Lai bled out almost 60 percent of her total blood volume, which doctors had to replace with constant transfusions.

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