A team of Sydney specialists has performed a series of “complex and mammoth” surgeries to remove a mass of tumours from the face of a young Indonesian woman — with astonishing results.
Natalia Aperasay, 26, was born with neurofibromatosis — a genetic disorder which causes benign tumours to form in the skin, brain, spinal cord and other parts of the body.
In Ms Aperasay’s case, the condition was so severe it resulted in the malformation of the entire right side of her face, making eating, drinking and talking a daily struggle.
The brave young woman, from West Papua, also had to cope with the reactions of others, saying she endured “a lot of shame growing up” and felt compelled to hide her face from the world.
That changed when a US medical team came across Ms Aperasay in her home province of Jayapura and passed on her story to Peter Gray, the Australian-born president of the Rotary Club of Phnom Penh, who was visiting West Papua at the time.
“They sent me a photo of Natalia and I thought: ‘How can we help’?” Mr Gray told the Liverpool Champion last year.
“No one deserves to live like this.”
Mr Gray went through his contact book and hit the phones, raising thousands of dollars with the help of Rotary clubs in western Sydney, Bendigo and his own Phnom Penh chapter.
He was put in touch with plastic and reconstructive surgeon Dr Michael Kernohan and cardiothoracic surgeon Dr Bruce French at Liverpool Hospital in Sydney’s south west.
Dr Kernohan said he had never seen a case as complex as Ms Aperasay’s.
“Rotary flew Natalia to Australia late in 2018 for an intensive week of medical appointments and scans before she returned again in May as a humanitarian patient,” Dr Kernohan said.
“It was a really eye-opening experience working with Rotary. Everyone has been outstanding in what they have given and Natalia has shown such courage.
“It was an amazingly complex and mammoth surgical procedure performed in one of our public hospitals which is testament to everyone involved.”
Ms Aperasay’s massive team of specialists included plastic surgeons, ear nose and throat surgeons, ophthalmologists, interventional radiologists, clinical psychologists, anaesthetists and nursing staff.
“All of them gave their time freely to treat and care for Natalia and Rotary covered her transport and accommodation needs, making this one great team effort,” Dr Kernohan said.
“There are countless people who offered their time to be part of something that had never been done in a NSW hospital.”
Ms Aperasay underwent surgeries in May and again in June which involved the removal of a significant portion of the right side of her face, reconstruction of her face, nose mouth and eyelid.
In an exclusive statement to news.com.au, she shared her joy at having been given a new lease on life, thanking Rotary and staff at Liverpool Hospital for their “love and willingness to help” and describing them as “like family”.
“I felt a lot of shame growing up in Jayapura because of my face,” she said.
“I am so happy to be going back to see my community. I no longer feel the need to hide my face. There is no way I can pay everyone back for how they have helped.”
Dr Kernohan said if Ms Aperasay needed help in the future he would be there for her in a heartbeat.
“Natalia has been so brave throughout this unfamiliar journey and has not complained once,” he said.
Dr French compared the complexity of Ms Aperasay’s procedures to the surgical separation of Bhutanese conjoined twins Nima and Dawa at the Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne last year.
“Planning for Natalia’s care started 18 months before she came to Australia,” he said.
“I want to commend Liverpool Hospital, the support from management and the Chief Executive for making this possible.”
The Rotary Clubs of Liverpool West, Bendigo, Strathdale and Phnom Penh collaborated to support all transport, appointments and accommodation arrangements for Natalia and her carer Ema Ondoafo.
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