MIAMI – At 15, Lai Thi Dao has never been to school, has no friends and is rarely allowed outside her family’s home because her parents hoped to spare her from the curious stares of neighbors in their small mountain village in Vietnam.
All that, she hopes, will change beginning next week, when she undergoes surgery at the University of Miami/Jackson Memorial Hospital to remove a massive growth that has consumed the lower half of her face.
Lai suffers from a massive Schwannoma tumor, a benign growth that began with a small lump in her tongue but swelled over the years to a size roughly one-third her body weight. The 16-pound tumor makes it difficult to eat, talk and even walk because its size throws the girl’s small frame off balance. The growth is now dangerously close to cutting off her airway, and doctors described the surgery as life-saving.
While Schwannoma tumors are relatively common, Lai’s medical team believes her growth is the largest ever reported in the world.
“She was found in the mountains of Vietnam and had been without treatment for 10 years,” said Dr. Jesus Gomez, one of the surgeons who will perform the surgery next week. “Something that started the size of a black bean on the tongue now has become this huge tumor that has deformed her head and face.”
The surgery will cost $107,000. Since Lai is not a U.S. resident, publicly funded Jackson cannot foot the bill. The International Kids Fund, a foundation affiliated with Jackson that brings children from developing nations to Miami for life-saving surgeries, is seeking donations to make the surgery possible.
The donations will pay for what surgeons described as a tricky but necessary procedure that will take between 10 and 12 hours to complete.
Lai’s case came to the hospital’s attention through Geoff Le, a university professor in Texas whose sister-in-law lives in Vietnam. A missionary worker in Lai’s village heard about the girl, took a few snapshots and passed them to Le’s relative – who in turn e-mailed them to him in hopes of getting help.
Le stood alongside Lai and her mother, Tuyet Thi, at a news conference at Jackson Memorial, serving as translator as mother and daughter fielded questions from reporters.
Lai, small for her age – in part because of the energy consumed by the ever-growing tumor – said she hopes to one day go to school in her village “like other girls.”
Tuyet Thi, who works alongside her husband and her six older children in the rice fields, said she tried to make her youngest daughter as “comfortable as possible” while shielding her from the sometimes cruel comments of neighbors.
She “tried to keep Lai from the public eye because the people are so curious,” she said, describing how she was turned away time and again by the village hospital.
Thi said she was ecstatic at the prospect of her daughter’s chances.
The girl has impressed her medical team with her cheerful disposition and tenacity – such as managing to feed herself small portions of rice through the small gap remaining between her jaws.
The surgery will likely require follow-up procedures to reconstruct Lai’s face, as well as extensive physical and speech therapy.
Doctors estimate she may be able to return to her native country by the summer.