May 2, 2008 -- A Vietnamese girl whose lower face had been all but consumed by a massive tumor may now have a good chance at a normal life, surgeons announced during a news conference today.
"The surgery on Tuesday was a complete success," said Dr. Robert Marx, a professor of surgery and chief of the division of oral and maxillofacial surgery at the University of Miami/Jackson Memorial Medical Center. "Right now she looks like a normal young lady, but with a swollen face and a swollen tongue."
The optimistic prognosis comes just three days after Marx and his team of doctors at the University of Miami completed a marathon 14-hour surgery to remove the facial growth that had plagued 15-year-old Lai Thi Dao for the last 10 years.
Once the mass was removed, doctors determined that the tumor weighed 12 pounds, 9.9 ounces. The growth has kept her from a normal life, and it could have been fatal if left to grow.
The tumor started out as little more than a cyst on Lai's tongue when she was three years old. At that stage, surgery to remove the growth would have been quick, cheap and relatively painless. But Dao had little access to medical care where she lived, and the tumor went untreated.
By the time Lai was 15, the tumor had slowly consumed the lower half of her face and accounted for roughly one-fifth of her body weight. As it grew, normal tasks such as talking, eating, drinking and sleeping became increasingly difficult.
The doctors involved with the surgery said the Schwannoma tumor was one of the largest ever reported -- perhaps even the largest such facial tumor in history -- but it probably won't return now that it has been removed.
A Challenging Surgery
As of this morning, Lai was still recovering in the intensive care unit at the hospital, though doctors reported that she was awake, alert and in good spirits.
The smooth recovery in some ways belies the difficulty of the complex procedure, which involved the removal of tumor tissue not only from Lai's jaw but from within her neck and chest, where the tumor had begun to invade.
Dr. Jesus Gomez, an oral and maxillofacial surgeon at the University of Miami, said that by far the most time-consuming aspect of the surgery was ensuring that Lai did not lose too much blood as surgeons cut away the tumor and the thick blood vessels that nourished it.
"She bled almost 60 percent of her total blood volume, and we had to replace that during surgery," Gomez said.
The surgeons also took on the considerable task of realigning Dao's jaw and reconstructing the bone and soft tissues that have been distorted by the massive growth. Marx said that at least two more reconstructive surgeries are on the way in the coming weeks, and doctors have already implanted a titanium plate into Lai's jaw to achieve a more natural-looking chin.
"The surgery is over, but the treatment is not over," Marx said, adding that speech therapy, physical therapy -- even therapy to teach her how to swallow again -- will be necessary for a full recovery.
Hefty Price Tag
The total cost of the medical care is estimated to be $107,000. While The Holtz's Children's Hospital at Jackson Memorial Medical Center offered to perform the surgery at a charitable rate, The International Kids Fund — the program that arranged for Dao's procedure — is still looking for generous donors to cover the cost.
"Here's a little girl who has never been to school in her country," Marx said, adding that he hopes the surgery will give Lai a good chance of better integrating into the normal lifestyle of her village -- complete with friends and classmates.
"If she achieves that -- and we think she can -- that would be the greatest joy for us," Marx said.
For information about how donations can be made online, visit www.internationalkidsfund.org. For further information, potential donors also may write to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Reports from the Associated Press Contributed to this article