Forty years ago, Taiwanese children born with cleft lips and palates were sometimes looked down upon because of not only their facial features, but also because they often had difficulty speaking. The arrival of US surgeon Samuel Noordhoff in Taiwan in 1959 at the invitation of the Mackay Memorial Hospital marked the beginning of efforts to help these children.
Attending a farewell event hosted in his honor by the Noordhoff Craniofacial Foundation he founded in 1989, the 86-year-old Noordhoff met with more than 200 former patients and their families, perhaps for the last time.
Although Noordhof retired to the US in 1999, he has kept up to date with all the foundation’s activities and returned to Taiwan annually to attend its events.
However, last year, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, so this visit might be his last.
Among the former patients who came to see “Grandpa Luo” — Noordhoff’s Chinese name is Luo Hui-fu (羅慧夫) — was Huang Yu-lun (黃煜倫), the last patient Noordhoff operated on before retiring.
Just one year old in 1999, 14-year-old Huang said that he was very grateful to Noordhoff because his actions had given him his current looks.
Huang’s father said that he and his wife had been worried when they were told that their eldest son had been born with a cleft lip, but they felt reassured when they learned that the foundation would be able to help them.
“My parents were overjoyed when they saw me after the surgery,” Huang said, adding that the experience has given him a unique perspective and taught him to empathize with others who have more “unusual” features.
Smiling and nodding to all the parents who came up to thank him — many of whom have also become volunteers for the foundation — Noordhoff said in Hoklo (also known as Taiwanese) that Taiwan had come far from what he remembered from when he first came to the nation in the 1960s.
“At the time, not everyone could afford shoes, to say nothing of medical technology and its availability to the public,” Noordhoff said, adding that Taiwan had come a long way since then, particularly in the field of medical technology.
Speaking about his choice to help children with cleft lips or palates, Noordhoff said that by simply changing how they looked, he could change their lives forever.
The surgery only takes two hours, but it can rebuild someone’s life, and make it something the patient can look forward to, Noordhoff said.
With a quarter of Taiwanese doctors practicing in the field of cosmetic surgery, Noordhoff said that although he did not oppose performing surgeries to make money, he would rather surgeons recognized that plastic surgery had intrinsic value.
A successful operation is of lasting value to a patient, Noordhoff said, adding that while the surgery could be difficult, the end result was worth the effort.
Chen Kuo-ting (陳國鼎), who once worked as Noordhoff’s assistant and is now the director of the Chang Gung Memorial Hospital’s Craniofacial Department, said that in recent years the chances of having a child with a cleft lip or cleft palate has dropped to one in 1,100, but added that Asians were still the most susceptible to the condition.
However, Chen also said that the medical community had identified at least 30 genomes that may directly or indirectly indicate a high risk of causing cleft lip or palate, adding that it was no longer a dream that one day experts would be able to conduct genetic testing and isolate the genome causing the condition.
In his closing comments at the ceremony, Noordhoff said he wished for everyone present to “think of yourself as normal, and help others,” adding that physical conditions permitting, he hoped he would be able to return to Taiwan in the future.
Additional reporting by CNA