Friday, August 29, 2008

Mauled toddler visits Granite State for surgery

Mauled toddler visits Granite State for surgery

Union Leader Correspondent

Abandoned by his teenage mother when he was a year old, Phung Thien Nhan was mauled by a wild animal in the jungle in a remote region of Vietnam. He lost his right leg and genitals in the attack.

After 72 hours alone in the jungle, he was found by a group of monks. The little boy was barely hanging onto life, and his wounds were covered in insects. A doctor who treated him at a local hospital gave him the name Thien Nhan, which means "good person" in Vietnamese. He remained hospitalized for two months.

Now celebrated as a miracle child in his native Vietnam, 2-year-old Thien Nhan visited Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center last week for the first of many surgeries by a team of DHMC doctors.

Thien Nhan's path to recovery has been a dangerous and difficult one. After the 2006 attack and his subsequent hospitalization, police in Vietnam located Thien Nhan's impoverished birth family and returned him to their village. There, he was neglected and undernourished and went without medical care.

But as Thien Nhan lived in squalor, Vietnamese magazine editor Tran Mai Anh, who had heard his story, was desperately searching for him.

828boy.jpg (KRISTEN SENZ)

Thien Nhan with his adoptive father, Phung Quang Nghing, in Hanover recently. (KRISTEN SENZ)

"People found him, and it made the news, but no one continued the story, and I think many people wondered what happened to him," Anh said last week at a dinner in Hanover held in her family's honor.

Anh and a friend made the long motorbike trip, up treacherous mountain roads, to visit Thien Nhan in his remote village. They found the young boy crawling in filth and without enough clothing to keep warm. He rummaged for his own food outside, peeling dirty bananas by himself.

"I couldn't sleep at all after that," said Anh, editor of an in-flight magazine in Hanoi.

It took several months, but in March of this year, Anh and her husband, Phung Quang Nghing, adopted Thien Nhan and made it their mission to give him as normal a life as possible. When they first took him home, he was a sickly child who hid in the corners of their home in Hanoi, avoiding his two older brothers.

"We brought him toys, but he didn't know how to play," Anh said.

Just five months later, Thien Nhan has learned to enjoy playing with his big brothers and to try new foods. "He's very, very happy," she said. "Big change."

As word spread of Thien Nhan's new family and their search for sponsors of his medical care, dozens of doctors, friends, nonprofit groups and complete strangers were inspired and offered to help.

"The story of Thien Nhan has just touched so many people all over the world," said Greig Craft, an American living in Vietnam who organized the family's trip last week from Hanoi to Seattle, then to Hanover and Boston, and then to Chicago, where doctors at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago are evaluating him this week for a new prosthesis.

Doctors involved in Thien Nhan's care and his adoptive parents are hopeful that medical breakthroughs in the development of a robotic prosthetic leg for his still-growing body could help countless others.

"I think the amazing thing about this, and I think the family recognizes it, is that this isn't about saving one kid," Craft said. "Thien Nhan is going to become a catalyst for so much good."

Thien Nhan had surgery at DHMC last Thursday to relieve a stricture that was blocking his urinary tract. A team of DHMC doctors that travels to Vietnam every March will perform necessary follow-up surgeries. Led by plastic surgeon Dr. Joseph Rosen, the team spends two weeks in Hanoi performing pediatric surgeries and training Vietnamese doctors.

In a couple of years, the team will reconstruct a working penis using skin from Thien Nhan's forearm, Rosen said. The surgery will eventually enable him to have a relatively normal adult sex life, he said.

"He seems like a very nice, pretty well-adjusted kid, considering what he's going through, but kids tend to be pretty adaptive," Rosen said.

Anh said she believes Thien Nhan's early life will make him a stronger person who will go on to achieve greatness.

"At this moment, no one can believe he's a survivor, but we have hope that he can be a person, a very good person," she said.

To date, more than $50,000 USD has been raised to help pay for Thien Nhan's care. To donate or learn more about his story, visit

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