Over the past several years, a big-hearted Italian surgeon has visited Vietnam twice a year and conducted free surgeries on some one hundred children in Vietnam with innate defects in their reproductive organs.
Dr. Roberto de Castro, who has long been known as one of the best surgeons in his discipline the world over, was recently honored with a “2015 National Volunteer” award, presented annually to individuals and organizations with notable voluntary contributions to Vietnam.
The awards were jointly given away to the Ho Chi Minh City chapter of the Ho Chi Minh Communist Youth Union and the United Nations Volunteers program.
Dr. Castro could not make it to the awards ceremony however, as he had returned home for Christmas and New Year celebrations.
At 8:30 am on November 30, the seasoned surgeon sat contemplating in front of the operation theater of Da Nang Hospital for Women and Children, seemingly gathering himself for the eight-hour marathon surgery that morning.
Dr. Roberto de Castro (in dark blue T-shirt) checks on a child patient. Photo: Tuoi Tre
Huy, the child patient that morning, was a serious case, with his bladder exposed since birth.
This was the third surgery Dr. Castro had conducted on the little boy.
At 8:40 am, the veteran surgeon gave a last-minute check inside the operation theater.
Five minutes later, the theater door closed, and the marathon began.
Over the following week, Dr. Castro would carry out dozens of such examinations and surgeries, delivering some 10 children hopes of normality.
One day in a dining hall at a hotel in Da Nang, an unknown woman touched Dr. Castro’s hands and mumbled in broken English, “Gold hand, diamond hand,” out of admiration for his dedication.
Over the past several years, the doctor’s surgery journeys have been accompanied and assisted by Tran Mai Anh and Greig Craf and his wife, Na Huong, who were integral to the miracle treatment and recuperation of Thien Nhan around eight years earlier.
In 2006, Nhan, an infant then, was marooned and had his right leg and reproductive organ consumed by wild animals.
Anh and her husband later adopted the little boy and went to great lengths to seek treatment for their adoptee.
Dr. Roberto de Castro (first right) exchanges professional information with his Vietnamese colleagues. Photo: Tuoi Tre
She managed to get through to Dr. Castro, who successfully operated on Nhan and offered him the opportunity for a happy life and a fulfilling manhood later on.
Following Nhan’s surgery, the Italian surgeon found himself fatefully bound to Vietnamese children.
At 8:00 am on November 29, the examination rooms at the Pediatric Surgery Department of Da Nang Hospital for Women and Children was packed with children and their expectant parents.
Some took their kids operated on by Dr. Castro previously for a reexamination, while others came for a final check-up prior to their surgeries the following day.
Learning of Dr. Castro’s arrival in the city, many waited in line from very early morning, hoping to have their children examined by the committed doctor.
Among the affected kids was Ho Thanh Cong, a four-month-old little girl whose sexual organ is not that of a female’s and resembles the one of the opposite sex.
Cong’s parents had given her a name typically intended for males.
After checking on the infant thoroughly, Dr. Castro affirmed again and again with her mother that Cong is definitely an adorable baby girl.
He decided to give the little girl an anesthesia for a more exhaustive check-up two days later, though she had not been on his schedule.
Some ten other children, both boys and girls, were accompanied by their parents into the examination rooms.
Most of these parents are unenlightened in terms of their children’s anomalies, which not only affect their excretive functions but may also adversely impact their mindset, sexual orientation and sex life later on.
Check-ups and surgical procedures were not without frustration.
Mai Anh and Na Huong, the program coordinator and interpreter, were sometimes indignant at mindless parents who failed to bring their children to planned surgeries, or adopt designated treatment courses.
Failure to comply with Dr. Castro’s instructions has denied these children timely surgeries, as they will have to wait for another six months for an operation when Dr. Castro returns to Vietnam, and deprived other potential patients of the same opportunity.
Ho Thanh Cong, a four-month-old girl whose sexual organ resembles that of a boy’s. Photo: Tuoi Tre
While Mai Anh was trying her best to improve parents’ understanding of their children’s anomalies and sense of responsibility toward them, Nhan – her adopted son – was running a high fever back home in Hanoi and was at risk of hospitalization.
Meanwhile, Na Huong has traveled between Ho Chi Minh City and Da Nang along with her eight-month-old baby to coordinate the program.
What is special about Dr. Castro is that he always knows every single child’s name and condition like the back of his palm.
He always wears a bright green Swatch watch, which seems incongruous for his age.
The doctor, who has a weakness for ice cream, usually takes off his bright timepieces, which cost around US$100 apiece, and gives them to his favorite patients or children who are throwing a tantrum during examinations.
He considers Vietnam his second home, as he feels warm at heart among kids in dire need of his help.