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U.S. nonprofit works to reconstruct Congolese boy's face after chimp attack

January 15, 2016

By David Burger


Friendship: Dr. Leon Klempner poses with Dunia Sibomana, 8, during the holidays after the Smile Rescue Fund for Kids, founded by Dr. Klempner, brought Dunia to New York for facial surgical reconstruction.
Stony Brook, N.Y. — Eight-year-old Dunia Sibomana is resting comfortably after his first surgery Jan. 11 to correct a facial deformity caused by a chimpanzee attack in his home country of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

He was brought to Stony Brook Children's Hospital in New York by the Smile Rescue Fund for Kids, a nonprofit organization founded in 2011 by retired orthodontist Dr. Leon Klempner. The nonprofit helps children with complex facial disfigurements who too often aren't able to be treated by nonprofits and charities that operate in places such as Africa.

"These are the kids who have no voice, who have no hope at all," said Dr. Klempner.

Dunia is the second child brought to the U.S. by the SRFK for treatment. He is living with a host family on Long Island and will remain there until he is finished with a series of surgeries at Stony Brook Children's Hospital, which is donating the services of its doctors and other medical specialists for Dunia's care.


Dunia Sibomana
In 2013, Dunia was playing with his 4-year-old brother and a cousin near Virunga National Park when they were attacked by a troop of chimps. The animals dismembered and killed his brother and left Dunia severely injured. His upper and lower lips were ripped off, his face was disfigured, and he lost a finger and some of his right ear, Dr. Klempner said.

"He was in the wrong place at the wrong time," Dr. Klempner said.

Dunia's father found Dunia and brought him for medical help to park rangers, who treated him the best they could. He was eventually referred to Dr. Klempner.

SRFK has celebrated its first success story, the surgical reconstruction of a young Kenyan girl, Saline Atieno, who endured 10 reconstructive surgeries after being infected with noma, a flesh-eating gangrene that developed in her mouth and disfigured her face. The infection was caused by being exposed to unsanitary conditions as well as contaminated drinking water.

SRFK is now focusing most of its energy on Dunia, whose lack of lips  makes it difficult for him to eat or drink.  When he was brought to Dr. Klempner's attention, he was seriously malnourished, weighing only 42 pounds, the orthodontist said.

"However the most devastating effect of the attack are the social issues," Dr. Klempner said. "He withdrew from school when the other children began making fun of his appearance. The teasing affected his self-esteem and he isolated himself. "

As he recovers and prepares to go through more surgeries, Dunia has become well-adjusted to life in the U.S. with the help of his volunteer host family, which has three kids for Dunia to play with. Dunia had never been in a car before, and had never seen an electronic device, Dr. Klempner said. But since being in the U.S., he has learned how to ride a bike. "He's no different than any other 8-year-old boy," Dr. Klempner said.

Dr. Klempner, despite retiring from private practice at the beginning of this year, remains as busy as ever. In addition to spending time with the Smile Rescue Fund for Kids, he is a member of the hospital's craniofacial team and the CEO of People & Practice, a digital marketing agency. When asked about why he started the nonprofit, he said, "We almost feel like it's an obligation, not a charity."

To donate or to offer help to SRFK, visit smilerescuefund.org.