Learning to walk at seven

St John of God CEO Lisa Norman and Mr Ton Tran by Chien''s bedside last year.

By Rachel Hickingbotham

Seven-year-old Chien is a boy who never learnt to walk.

Born in a remote Vietnamese village with a common birth defect called club feet, he was not able to walk like children his own age.

Had he been born in Australia, his condition would have been corrected soon after birth with simple non-surgical procedures.

However, without medical treatment available in his village and his birth family unable to care for him, this was not possible for Chien. With his condition left unchecked, the deformity took hold, resulting in his right foot becoming completely inverted.

Chien did not let his disability stop him being mobile and became skilled at using his arms to lift and manoeuvre his body around. At school his friends carried him about on their backs, an easy task due to his light 12kg frame.

In November last year, Chien’s life changed forever thanks to Mr Ton Tran, an orthopaedic surgeon at Berwick’s St John of God Hospital.

Mr Tran regularly visits his own home country of Vietnam to perform surgery on children in need. At his clinic in Vietnam, he treats many disadvantaged children and often sees children suffering from a variety of illnesses, genetic disorders and disabilities.

“It’s very sad because many of them suffer from genetic disorders which cannot be cured or fixed,” Mr Tran explained. “Meeting Chien was different. I knew I could fix his problem with just one operation”.

When Mr Tran returned to Australia, he met with St John of God’s CEO Lisa Norman. Once Ms Norman heard Chien’s story and saw the photo of him being piggy-backed around by his friends, she immediately agreed to facilitate Chien’s surgery and began the complex process of bringing Chien out to Australia. With the help of The Children First Foundation, Chien arrived in Melbourne with his carer Vy and her 14-year-old son Duc, also wheelchair bound with cerebral palsy.

On 30 November, Chien underwent lengthy eight-hour surgery to correct both his feet and hip dysplasia. He then went on to blitz his rehabilitation at St John of God which included exercises and learning to walk.

“His stay was wonderful! He was a delight and was well and truly spoilt by the hospital team and by Mr Tran and his family. Chien enjoyed zooming around the hospital corridors in his wheelchair and spent Christmas with Mr Tran and his family. He was also able to do some sightseeing at Phillip Island and meet some Australian animals,” Ms Norman said.

Chien was the perfect patient and took his first steps during his rehab sessions.

“He surprised everyone by weight bearing on his legs and taking steps far quicker than expected. It is a testament to Chien’s determination and to Mr Tran’s incredible work. We sent him home with an appropriately sized walking frame to assist in his recovery”, Ms Norman said.

Chien stayed in Australia for just under and month and Mr Tran now stays in regular contact with Vy.

His latest update was excellent news. “He has graduated from his frame and is on crutches now and is walking quite well independently,” Mr Tran said.

“Chien will be followed up over the next few years to ensure that his growth continues to be appropriate, especially with his hip.”

Chien is fitting in well with Vy’s family and is receiving an education with her boys. Mr Tran will be re-united with his determined little patient in April and will be able to see first-hand Chien growing stronger as he finally begins to walk tall with his peers.