Thursday, August 28, 2008

Helping a 'little hero'

Helping a 'little hero'

'A WONDERFUL SPIRIT | Toddler learning to walk here after being abandoned by mom in Vietnam and mauled by wild animal

August 27, 2008

Balancing easily on his left leg, one hand on his father's shoulder, Phung Thien Nhan, 2, smiled and yelled "OK!" at a passerby at a Chicago park.

English isn't the only thing the toddler -- hailed as a "little national hero" in his native Vietnam -- is learning in Chicago.

Here, tiny Thien Nhan also is learning to walk.

Thien Nhan's teenage birth mother abandoned the newborn in a Vietnamese jungle in 2006. He was mauled by a wild animal, and the attack destroyed his right leg and his genitals before he was rescued by Buddhist monks.

Two years later, the toddler is learning how to walk at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago. Staffers there are coordinating with a team in Vietnam to provide rehabilitation for the boy when he returns home.

Dr. Deborah Gaebler-Spira, the institute's chief of amputee service, said she believes Thien Nhan will walk with a prosthetic leg. The boy is nimble now, easily climbing up and down a picnic table at the park near where the family is staying.

"It speaks to his motivation and his strength," she said. "He has a very wonderful family and a wonderful spirit. You can see he is really going to take advantage of everything we can give him."

Rehabilitation Institute staffers aren't the only ones who are helping the boy.

When his family ate at a Vietnamese restaurant Monday in Chinatown, it turned out that the owner had read Thien Nhan's story online. He paid for dinner and donated $100 to the boy's medical fund.

Thien Nhan's fight for life was front-page news in Vietnam for weeks after monks found the newborn covered in ants and leaves and close to death.

After the headlines faded, Tran Mai Anh, a 35-year-old Vietnamese editor, said she couldn't forget "the little boy in the mountains with one leg."

Her two young sons, now 3 and 8, would sometimes ask her what happened to the boy.

She and her husband sought him out. They were horrified to find that Thien Nhan, who had been released into his grandmother's custody, lived in squalor. The couple insisted on medical care for the baby and ended up adopting him.

When Thien Nhan first came to live with his new family, he didn't cry; he slept on the floor because he didn't know what a bed was for, and he ate only bananas and cold rice, Mai Anh said.

Gradually, he started interacting, and her sons taught him how to play.

On Tuesday, he chattered excitedly in Vietnamese, smiling and pointing at dogs at the park and buses passing by.

Before he arrived in Chicago on Sunday, Thien Nhan had surgery at a New Hampshire hospital to help ease and control urination.

He will be receiving intensive medical care for years to come, including reconstruction of his genitals, said Greig Craft, who is helping coordinate his medical care.

Mai Anh said she doesn't want her son limited by his bleak start. In America, she believes doctors can grant that wish.

"I hope I can see him have a normal life," she said. "I hope I see him married, and very well-educated."

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