Vietnamese orphan Chien Lu was unable to walk until surgeons fixed his feet.
Vietnamese orphan Chien Lu was unable to walk until surgeons fixed his feet.

How this Vietnamese orphan came to take his first steps

The experts were wrong about Chien Lu - and they couldn't be happier about it.

Brought to Melbourne from one of the most remote areas of Vietnam, it was hoped surgeons might help the seven-year-old walk for the first time at some stage over the next year.

But this week - less than three weeks since his badly deformed legs were rebuilt - Chien stood, smiled and took his first steps.

The remarkable orphan has inspired those around him so much that his surgeon, Prof Ton Tran, has now taken him into his own home to spend a very special Christmas with his family before Chien returns to Vietnam.

"This will be his first non-snow Christmas in his life, so we are hoping to take him down to the beach to show him some Australian wildlife," Prof Tran said.

"He is terrific. He has a fantastic fighting spirit and that is what has carried him this far.

"We didn't expect, given that the has not walked the last seven years, that he would even be able to stand for at least three months.

"He has managed to get all of us wrong by getting up on his feet already at two and a half weeks after surgery.

"We are very pleased to be wrong on this one."

Chien Lu, in Vietnam with his clubfeet before surgery. Picture: Supplied
Chien Lu, in Vietnam with his clubfeet before surgery. Picture: Supplied

 

Successful surgery by Melbourne experts has repaired Chien Lu’s feet. Picture: David Caird
Successful surgery by Melbourne experts has repaired Chien Lu’s feet. Picture: David Caird

 

It has taken the goodwill of dozens of people across two nations to get Chien standing, most notably Prof Tran, the St John of God Hospital Berwick and Children First Foundation.

Born with a condition known as clubfeet, both of Chien's feet were permanently turned inward and parallel to the ground, making walking impossible.

Occurring in about 1 in 1100 births the condition is not overly rare. In developed countries babies are routinely fitted with orthotics days after birth so their legs self-correct before they are ready to take their first step.

But Chien was born in the village of Nam Khoa, high in the mountains near Vietnam's northern border with China. The village is a one hour trek to the nearest road, and then a then a 14 hour drive to Hanoi.

Chien Lu will stay with Prof. Ton Tran during the Christmas period before returning home to Vietnam. Picture: David Caird
Chien Lu will stay with Prof. Ton Tran during the Christmas period before returning home to Vietnam. Picture: David Caird

Having only his grandmother, the village also seemed a world away from help until the principal of a school 40km away offered the chance of an education.

During school terms Chien has slept at the homes of his teachers including Vy Tran, while classmates carry him on their backs to help him get around.

Determined to do more for Chien, Ms Tran and others appealed for help.

Twice Vietnamese medical teams tried to help Chien but failed. Visiting US specialists were also unable to help him.

The seven-year-old would not be able to stand or walk for 6-12 months. Picture: David Caird
The seven-year-old would not be able to stand or walk for 6-12 months. Picture: David Caird

 

Surgeons were shocked when the Vietnamese orphan was able to stand on his own two feet. Picture: David Caird
Surgeons were shocked when the Vietnamese orphan was able to stand on his own two feet. Picture: David Caird

 

Then the appeals were heard by Melbourne orthopaedic surgeon Prof Tran, who spent weeks undertaking online video consultations before pleading with St John of God Berwick chief executive Lisa Norman.

"At the start of this year Ton said to me 'I have met this little boy who I know we can help'. "He said 'I'll show you a picture, you won't be ale to say no' - he was right," Ms Norman said.

"Over a long period of time a lot of people have been in his corner and allowed this to happen."

Having brought hundreds of children to Australia for life-changing surgery, Children First Foundation was brought on board to help Chien get to Melbourne.

Chien arrived to stay at the charity's East Kilmore retreat accompanied by his faithful teacher Ms Tran on November 24.

Soon after Prof Tran discovered Chien had also been living with an undiagnosed dislocated right hip but, on November 30, he undertook surgery to repair it as well as Chien's feet.

After severing the tendons holding Chien's feet in the wrong position, Prof Tran "realigned" his bones before setting his reshaped legs in plaster casts so they would set in their correct shape as the tendons reconnected.

It was expected Chien's legs - and will - would be would be strong enough to allow him to walk in six to 12 months, long after he had left Australia.

But when he returned to St John of God Berwick on Tuesday to have the plaster casts removed and his new legs unveiled, CFF chief executive Elizabeth Lodge and everyone else were stunned to see Chien standing on his own two feet.

"I am staggered," Ms Lodge said.

"The last time I saw him it was before surgery and he was in a wheelchair and he didn't have this spirit.

"He has this resilience. We talk about courage, what a courageous kid.

"How exciting - his future is on those little legs."

While it was planned for Chien to return home before Christmas so he could begin a three to six month rehabilitation away from his village, Prof Tran negotiated for the flight to be pushed back until December 28 so he could enjoy Christmas with his own family.

"(At Chien's village) the temperature is 1 degree inside in winter. I am hoping to show him some cultural exposure to our lifestyle before he goes home," Prof Tran said.

"He is now able to stand on his own two feet, so we are expect him to have a very, very changed life when he gets back home.

"It will be a new life for him.

"He has got a good brain and good community support - now that he has got ability, I don't think anything is going to stop him."

To support Children First Foundation in helping children like Chien, donate here.



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