Jacksonville surgeons' hands 'guided by God' in Vietnam

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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - Thursday night at 8:30 p.m., Bruce Hamilton takes viewers on an amazing journey: Miracle Mission: From Jacksonville to Vietnam.

You'll witness the work of local surgeons transforming children's lives, physically and socially, half a world a way. Parents of these children believe these surgeon's hands are "guided by God."

Travel to a small town in Vietnam -- a town that during the Vietnam era conflict was literally caught in the middle. Even today, 38 years later, the town and its people are still caught in the middle.

These children's faces are disfigured. They are subject to ridicule and teasing. Monstrous mistakes of mother nature this Jacksonville-based team will try and fix. In some cases mistakes caused by a cruel twist of fate.

The doctors and nurses face a myriad of challenges, but it's those challenges that drive them. These children hold a special place in their hearts.

"Children, they are my life," said Dr. Barry Steinberg a maxillofacial surgeon from UF Health and founder of the Facing Futures Foundation. "I wish I could treat them all and not being able to do so causes me great sadness."

The team operates at Pacific Hospital in Hoi An. It's a modern facility by Vietnamese standards, but not what one expects in the states. First on the agenda, deciding which patients they can see, who they will have to turn away despite the fact that some of the villagers traveled hundreds of miles to see the doctors.

The physicians and nurses examine, weigh and interviews parents using an interpreter to decide who they will treat. The priority, according to oral surgeon Peter Larsen, is to rate each patient on a scale of one to three, deciding which cases we can effectively complete.

There's elation when parents find out their child is a candidate for surgery; disappointment when they are turned away.

Even the surgeons, who most view as clinicians who tackle their tasks void of emotion, admit turning a child away has a profound impact on them. These doctors are mindful of the fact it's not just a physical change they bring about, there's an important social change as well for these children.

Fact is, these children are often made fun of because of the deformity, thought to be mentally challenge, cursed or, as one mother told Hamilton, are demon children.

"This surgery proves life changing in so many ways," Steinberg said.

The first case of the trip has doctors working on little Le Nhu Ngoc. Surgery goes well, but along the way a bit of a challenge arises. After performing what's tantamount to medical origami, the team has to reshape the 4-month-old's nose as well, but they don't have the proper equipment.

This is not like a TV drama where everything they need is at their disposal.. they are forced to take a detour and get innovative. They find a piece of tubing, shape it, fashion it, mold it into an apparatus to bolster the baby's nasal passageway.  It works, and the child is on to post op, where mom is waiting to hold, sing to and comfort her child.

Discover more of the challenges along the way and hear the compelling stories of villagers who travel many miles on dirt roads to see these Jacksonville surgeons.

That's all in Hamilton's documentary, Miracle Mission: From Jacksonville to Vietnam, that airs on The Local Station Thursday at 8:30 p.m.

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