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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Hawaiian surgery gives girl back her leg

Hawaiian surgery gives girl back her leg

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Gemma Deavin

Leam Sithan (left) reunited back in Cambodia with her mother after ten months of treatment in America.

Honolulu might be closely associated with holidays, honeymoons and hula dancing,

but for Leam Sithan, 14, it was all about hospitals.

Sithan has spent her childhood hopping after a severe burn as a baby rendered her

left leg unusable. But after a series of complex operations at the Shriners Hospital

for Children in Honolulu, Hawaii, which took over ten months to complete, Sithan

returned to Cambodia on January 17 walking-for the first time ever in her native

country-on her own two feet.

When she was just five months old a cat knocked over a kerosene lamp in the family's

house in Kampong Thom province. Unable to afford medical treatment, her parents simply

hoped for the best. But when the burn healed, her foot and calf were fused to her

thigh.

"Before I always had to hop and so I was always tired and exhausted," Sithan

told the Post on January 18. "Now I am so happy to be able to walk like everyone

else."

As Sithan got older, her parents took her to various doctors in the Siem Reap area

who were all unable to help-save suggesting the leg be amputated. Finally, the Angkor

Hospital for Children put the family in touch with an organization called Medicorps,

which has been working in Cambodia for 15 years. They contacted Dr Gunther Hintz,

a Honolulu-based plastic surgeon who specializes in reconstructive surgery, to see

if there was anything he could do to help.

"I looked at her leg and said, 'We can do something, we don't have to cut it

off, but it will be a long and complicated procedure so we can't do it here',"

recalled Hintz.

Medicorps made arrangements for Sithan to be placed in Shriners hospital in Honolulu

where she would be able to have all the treatment she needed-orthopedic operations

to stretch out the leg, plastic reconstructive surgery and a course of intensive

physiotherapy to help build strength in the leg, which had been unused for 14 years.

Arriving in Hawaii last March, Sithan lived with a host family while she underwent

major surgery.

"The blood vessels and nerves had grown through the scar tissue," said

Hintz. "Nerves usually grow with the leg and they can't really be stretched

that well. There was no treatment at the time (of the burn) and this led to one huge

scar-we have had to stretch that. We cut off part of the foot and we were able to

use the skin from there to graft onto the other sections."

Sithan's bones had not formed properly, particularly the joints, which is why she

must currently wear a brace. She will always need a prosethic leg to compensate for

the difference in length between legs.

Hintz said Medicorps is committed to providing ongoing help to Sithan, including

schooling and vocational training, to create "a fully restored person with a

livelihood."He added, however, that because of her injury village life "is

not so practical." "Cambodian village life would be difficult medically

and also, after one year in the US, difficult psychologically," Hintz said.

But ten months in America have inspired Sithan, and she said she now wants to study

English and Khmer.

Her mother said she was delighted by the fact the operation appeared to have helped

Sithan emerge from her shell. "Now, she wants to study and go to school and

I hope she can be a teacher," she said.

Hintz estimated the medical costs to restore Sithan's leg at roughly $250,000, though

much of the expertise and services that would have contributed to this sum were donated.

The justification for spending so much time and money on helping just one child is

that "this is an investment in creating a beacon of hope for others who are

living in the villages and may have severe deformities," Hintz said.

Medicorps hopes to raise awareness of the importance of training Cambodian doctors

and traditional healers in basic medicine to broaden the reach of preventative health

care in Cambodia and ensure more young children do not have to endure years of hopping

like Sithan.

After the operation, her leg was very painful, Sithan said, adding that she didn't

like taking her pain medication because it "made my head feel bad."

The pain is not so bad now but she still gets twinges of pain when she walks, and

the weight of the brace she wears makes her tired. These, though, are minor inconveniences

for a girl who for the first time can stand on her own two feet. "I am very

happy that my leg has been fixed now," Sithan said. "I feel like I have

been reborn."

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