Virunga National Park, located in the heart of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, is a vast expanse of dense vegetation, active volcanoes and free-roaming wild animals — beauty and danger — hardly the landscape of a playground.
Yet, it was along the park’s deeply forested border two years ago that a small group of Congolese boys staked out a place to play. The decision proved devastating.
Lurking nearby, an agitated troop of chimpanzees jumped from the entanglement of trees and ambushed the boys.
In no time, two lay dead. One, Dunia Sibomana, now 8, survived. But the child suffered horrific facial injuries: his lips were torn from his face and one cheek ripped apart. Facial muscle is missing. Although the wounds have healed, they have left him with severe handicaps. It is difficult for him to eat, swallow and communicate.
On Monday, Dunia is to undergo rare facial surgery at Stony Brook University Hospital, a procedure so uncommon — because it is restoring both lips — that the plastic surgeon performing the operation is considering documenting it as a case study for a medical journal.
Dr. Alexander Dagum, chief of plastic and reconstructive surgery, is performing the delicate surgery without charge, and is going into it well aware that several follow-up operations will be needed to fully restore the boy’s appearance and facial function.
“He lost much of his face — his upper and lower lips. He also lost a finger. He was left disfigured,” said Dagum, who is also co-director of Stony Brook’s Cleft Palate-Craniofacial Center and executive vice chair of surgery.
“I’ve done multiple complex facial reconstructions in the past,” Dagum said. “Sometimes with cancer, people will lose the whole upper lip or the lower lip. This case is different because it involves both lips.”
Dagum has already sketched out the surgical path he intends to take when Dunia is wheeled into the operating room. He plans to create new lips for the child and to implant muscle on the right side to improve Dunia’s ability to open and close his mouth. To create new lips, he plans to rely on a tissue-expanding technique commonly used in breast reconstruction following mastectomy.
New lips ultimately will improve not only eating and return the child’s ability to smile, it will allow him to pronounce words that include the consonants: P, B, M and V, which require lips for the correct sound.
Dunia arrived on Long Island a few days before Thanksgiving and has been living with Jennifer Crean of Hauppauge, who is hosting him in this country. The boy will continue to live with Crean after the procedure and during the follow-up operations scheduled over the next few months. She said the child has been overjoyed with his experience in the United States, learning about Christmas festivities and Santa Claus as well as the vast smorgasbord of foods available here. “He doesn’t like sweets, but he loves fruits, vegetables and chicken,” Crean said.
She has enrolled Dunia in a Hauppauge elementary school where he is learning English. The child speaks only Swahili but is quickly picking up words at school and from Crean at home.
For Dunia, Long Island is a world far different from his own, which has been beset in recent years with civil wars and uprisings that have displaced entire villages. Scores of people have been forced into temporary encampments, some dangerously close to the Virunga National Park, famous as the natural habitat of chimpanzees as well as the endangered African mountain gorillas.
Primatologists have long documented the territorial behavior of chimps. In Dunia’s case, the animals likely viewed him and his playmates, one of them his brother, who was killed, as threats — alien and dangerous, experts say.
Life with Crean, by contrast, has been filled with fun, outings — and safety.
Crean became a volunteer host for children awaiting surgery as a result of working for Dr. Leon Klempner, a recently retired Port Jefferson orthodontist and current assistant clinical professor of dentistry at Stony Brook University School of Dental Medicine.
Klempner is the founder of a nonprofit organization called Smile Rescue Fund for Kids, which identifies children in resource-poor countries who need facial or cranial surgeries. Surgeons in resource-poor regions of the world generally do not perform complex reconstructive procedures, leaving people in need disfigured and bearing lifelong scars.
In Dunia’s case, Klempner said there are multiple aims, many of them riveted on alleviating stigma while improving the child’s ability to eat and speak normally.
“We are looking to reintegrate the child into society,” Klempner said. “Most of these children are ridiculed, embarrassed and ashamed. They withdraw. They don’t go to school. They basically have no life and no opportunities.
“Our main goal is to have him looking more normal so that he has more self-confidence to go back to school,” said Klempner, referring to Dunia’s classroom in the Congo.
Klempner also hopes word spreads about his organization and that others will step up and sponsor children from abroad who are awaiting surgery.
Dunia is the second youngster Crean has hosted in her home. The other child, a girl from Kenya, named Saline, had been attacked by a form of flesh-eating bacteria that damaged her face. She underwent 10 surgeries performed by Dagum in 2013.
Dagum described the destructive infection as the progressive and often gangrenous condition known as noma disease, which is largely seen in developing countries. Even after the infection is gone, facial disfigurement remains. As with Dunia, Saline had been ostracized because of her appearance. Noma disease is bacterial and often transmitted through unsafe drinking water, experts in tropical medicine say.
Crean, meanwhile, says she gets a lot of joy out of helping children in need. “I was in the right place at the right time to provide help,” she said. “There are a lot of people who don’t know about the groups that do this. These are grass-roots groups and everyone who participates donates their time.”