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Vietnam’s Surgical Miracle: Conjoined Twins’ Separation In 1988 Amid Electricity & Equipment Shortages

Vietnam’s first conjoined twins’ separation surgery in 1988

On 15th July 2020, 1-year-old Vietnamese conjoined twins Trúc Nhi and Diệu Nhi were separated in a highly complicated surgery that involved 100 physicians. The successful surgery gained tremendous attention from the public. 

But this was just one of several difficult and unusual surgeries performed in Vietnam’s modern history.

In fact, Vietnam’s first surgery to separate a conjoined set of twins took place in 1988, amid a severe lack of medical resources. This unusual operation has gone down in Vietnam’s medical history as a surgical miracle. 

Here’s how it inspired our nation torn by war and economic sanctions.

Conjoined twins were extremely rare in the world at that time

conjoined twins surgery
1-year-old Nguyễn Việt and Nguyễn Đức
Image credit: VnExpress

In 1988, when Vietnam was still under the US embargo and with trade barriers in place, modern amenities and instruments required for medical care in hospitals were mostly out of reach.

Even so, Vietnam had exceptional and devoted medical talents who fought against the odds to successfully separate the conjoined twins Nguyễn Việt and Nguyễn Đức. 

Born on 25th July 1981 in Kon Tum, Tây Nguyên, Việt and Đức were born connected at their lower bodies and with only three legs between them. 

When they reached the age of 4, Việt was diagnosed with cerebral palsy and went into a coma. The twins were sent to Japan with the help of the Japanese Red Cross for treatment but to no avail. 

conjoined twins surgery
Image credit: VnExpress

Knowing that Việt could die at any time and Đức could also die because of complications, Từ Dũ Hospital’s management decided to separate them. 

That was a historic decision, because a surgery to separate conjoined twins in which one had a brain condition had never happened before.

conjoined twins surgery
Image credit: Phụ Nữ Online

“There were only six sets of conjoined twins in the world back then. But none of those babies had a cerebral palsy such as the case of Việt and Đức,” said Professor Trần Đông A, the surgeon responsible for the operation for Việt and Đức in 1988.

A severe shortage of medical resources made any operation a daunting task, let alone a complex one such as a conjoined twin separation surgery. To prepare for this landmark surgery, the local surgical team sought assistance from Japan.

Lack of electricity and rehearsing on dolls

conjoined twins surgery
Image credit: Phụ Nữ Online

The Japanese Red Cross assisted by sending ¥15 million worth of equipment and medicine over to Vietnam to help with the operation.

However, having modern instruments was not enough.

Image credit: Phụ Nữ Online

When the local team tested the equipment from Japan, they realized that they didn’t work because the electricity source of the hospital was not stable. Its electricity could suffer an outage at any time. Learning about this, the Japan team sent 20 voltage regulators to Vietnam by air the following day.

Surgeon Trần Đông A recalled the nerve-wrecking days prior to the surgery, “I spent one month to interact with the people who would participate in this puzzling operation. I was surprised to see everyone raring to go even when none of them had any experience in operating on conjoined twins.”

70 physicians involved in the surgery, who were leading medical experts of their time, had to do comprehensive research and practice before the big day came. Surgeon Trần Đông A’s wife, Mdm Lê Thị Minh Tâm, an expert in making dolls, also pitched in to help. 

conjoined twins surgery
Surgeon Trần Đông A
Image credit: VnExpress

She created life-sized dolls modeling the shapes of Việt and Đức for the surgeons to rehearse on. That was how the team knew that the door of the operating theatre was not large enough to carry the twins through and had to expand it.  

A surgical miracle that lasted 15 hours

Inside the operating theatre
Image credit: Phụ Nữ Online

On 4th October 1988, the monumental surgery took place in Việt Đức Hospital, spearheaded by chief surgeon Trần Đông A and a team of leading physicians from Vietnam and Japan. 

Image credit: Phụ Nữ Online

After 15 hours, the twins were successfully separated. 

conjoined twins surgery
Image credit: VnExpress

Đức recovered rapidly. He was able to stand, walk, and even ride a bicycle after months of physical therapy.

However, Việt continued to live in a permanent semi-conscious state for the next 19 years, until he died of pneumonia and kidney failure in 2007.

Today, Đức has a family of his own and a stable job at Từ Dũ Hospital, where he first met the physicians who changed his life with their boldness and devotion.

conjoined twins surgery
Image credit: VnExpress

To pay his gratitude to the Japanese Red Cross for their timely and life-changing assistance, Đức named his two children Anh Đào (Cherry Blossom) and Phú Sĩ (Fuji) – two national symbols of Japan. 

Not only did the talented surgeons from both Vietnam and Japan save Đức’s life and give him an even better one, but his elder brother also did.

“Việt – my elder brother was the victim. I’m still wishing that he didn’t have that fever that left his brain damaged. In that case, he would still be alive and kicking. We could share with each other the joy and pains of this life,” Đức said in an interview reported by VnExpress. “The day he went away, I felt as if I had just lost half of me.”

Even though one of the legendary twins is survived by the other, it doesn’t change the fact that the unprecedented surgery was nothing short of a miracle that gave them a new lease of life. 

A surgery that testified to the incredible advancements of Vietnam’s medical scene

The surgery to separate the conjoined twins Việt and Đức will always be a landmark in Vietnam’s modern medical history. It was carried out by a team of surgeons and nurses who hadn’t had any experience with such a complex operation, amid a time when modern equipment was scarce and even basic necessities such as electricity unstable. 

All we had at that time was a team of exceptionally talented surgeons, who were determined and dedicated to giving the twins the best chances of healthy, separate lives ahead. 

Thanks to the extraordinary team effort between Vietnam and Japan, the twins were able to lead independent lives that were filled with fresh hope after the surgery. 

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Cover image adapted from: Phụ Nữ Online

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