Eight-year-old Dunia Sibomana, left, poses for a photo with Dr. Alexander Dagum

Congolese boy attacked by chimps getting rare face surgery in New York

Eight-year-old boy to get a rare, risky, reconstructive surgery in New York after being mauled by chimpanzees in Africa. Sharon Reich reports.

STONY BROOK, NEW YORK, UNITED STATES (Reuters) – An 8-year-old boy whose lips were torn off during an attack by chimpanzees as he played near a river in his native Democratic Republic of Congo will undergo a rare double-lip reconstruction at a New York hospital next week.

Doctors at Stony Brook Children’s Hospital on Long Island will perform the first of several surgeries on Dunia Sibomana on Monday (January 11). The goal will be to restore functioning lips that will improve his speech and stop constant drooling.

During Monday’s 8-hour surgery, doctors will harvest a rectangle of skin and a nerve from Sibomana’s forearm that will be used to form the circle of both lips, said Dr. Alexander Dagum, the hospital’s chief of plastic and reconstructive surgery.

Under a microscope, tiny veins and arteries will be reconnected to provide blood supply for the transplanted tissue and the nerve will allow the lips to feel sensations.

The attack occurred two years ago in a war-torn region that struggles with environmental conservation and is home to some of the world’s few remaining mountain gorillas. Dunia’s four-year-old brother was killed, but he survived.

Dr. Leon Klempner, founder of the Smile Rescue Fund for Kids, a philanthropy that helped arrange the surgery donated by Stony Brook Children’s Hospital and its doctors, explains what happened.

“Dunia was in the wrong place at the wrong time. He was playing in the fields, near his father. His dad was working near an area where there was a running river, so there was a certain background noise. So he didn’t see the screams when a group of aggressive chimpanzees attacked the boys. Dunia was significantly mauled. He lost both his upper lip and his lower lip, damage to his ear, he lost one finger, injury to his thigh and he also had some internal injuries as well.”

Sibomana would be the youngest recipient of a double lip reconstruction. Two other known cases involved adults.

Dr. Alexander Dagum, Chief of Plastic and Reconstructive surgery at Stony Brook, says three surgeries are ahead for the child.

“The challenge is to try and reconstruct functioning upper and lower lips. The first surgery will be really primarily to bring tissue there. So we are going to take tissue from his forearm with a blood vessel and with nerve to bring it up to the lip region of the mouth, fold it into a basic lip and anastomos the nerve of the tissue to a nerve that would have gone to the lip, so he gets some sensation there. And then we have to connect the little artery and veins under the microscope to provide blood supply for the tissue that we bring up.”

Taunts from other children drove Sibomana from school in his village bordering Virunga National Park in Democratic Republic of Congo.

Dr. Klempner said children like Sibomana who have complex deformities require a high level of medical expertise as well as social support.

“The issues with somebody like Dunia are there’s the medical side of it, but that’s only part of the story. The psycho-social part of it is the part that is really heart-wrenching. Because children like Dunia, they isolate themselves. There’s so much bullying and other children that make fun of them that they withdraw. So we’re hoping that when he’s done and we send him back home that he’ll re-integrate and that he’ll have a fair shake at having some semblance of a normal life.”

Dr. Klempner said he is also collecting donations at SmileRescueFund.org to allow Sibomana to attend boarding school back in Africa, which costs less than $700 (USD) a year.

Sibomana is temporarily enrolled in second grade at a Long Island elementary school, where he is learning to read and write English. His native language is Swahili.

He has acquired a taste for chicken fingers and pizza, although he has some difficulty keeping food in his mouth without lips. Still, the 48-pound (22 kilo) boy has gained weight in recent weeks, Klempner said.

During a meeting with doctors this week, Sibomana’s eyes sparkled as he used a remote control to raise and lower an exam table, mischievously sticking his tongue out at doctors who asked him to stop playing with their equipment.

He then dashed off to a playroom where he hopped onto a red scooter and marveled at an abundance of toys that will be used by therapists to help him recover from his surgeries.