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STONY BROOK, N.Y. (Reuters) - Just weeks after a surgical team on New York's Long Island began a series of operations to rebuild both lips of an 8-year-old boy mauled by chimpanzees in Africa, the sound of success filled a play room at Stony Brook Children's Hospital.
"Slurp!" was heard as Dunia Sibomana sipped a spoonful of chicken broth through his newly created lips. The surgery has already helped him keep food inside his mouth, speak more clearly and stop constant drooling, said lead surgeon Dr. Alexander Dagum, the hospital's chief of plastic and reconstructive surgery.
Two years ago, Sibomana was playing with children in his native Democratic Republic of Congo when chimpanzees attacked, ripping off his lips and killing his younger brother.
The rare double-lip reconstruction requires several surgeries over the course of about nine months, and the first took place on Jan. 11.
Complications arose during the surgery, which was expected to last eight hours but stretched to 14, as Dagum harvested a rectangle of skin, nerve, tendon and vein from the child's forearm and used it to form the circle of both lips.
It turned out the vein was too short to reach a crucial blood supply in the neck so Dagum scrambled to collect a second vein from the boy's upper arm to make the connection.
Racing against the clock to keep the transferred tissue alive by surgically restoring the blood supply, Dagum looked through a microscope and sewed vein to vein and nerve to nerve.
In the end, Dagum said he was surprised by the extent Sibomana is now able to move his lips, which will improve further as swelling subsides. A subsequent surgery this summer also is meant to enhance the movement and look of the lips.
"We're really happy. We got more than we expected," Dagum said.
After surgery, Sibomana remained sedated for a week as the healing began. His hospital room is filled with stuffed animals and balloons and manned 24 hours each day by volunteers from Smile Rescue Fund for Kids, the charity that paid for his travel to the hospital, which donated the medical treatment.
He woke surrounded by the American family he has been living with - Jennifer Crean and her three children Collin, 16, Eian, 12, and Grace, 10, of the Long Island hamlet of Hauppauge.
Enough donations have poured into SmileRescueFund.org to allow Sibomana to attend boarding school back in Africa, which costs less than $700 a year, said charity founder Leon Klempner, a retired Stony Brook dentist.
"Home - I need home! Ziggy!" said Sibomana, a native Swahili speaker who is picking up English, calling out the name of the Crean family dog as he waited to be discharged from the hospital last week.
It will be another week before Sibomana is allowed to play outside, Dagum said, but by then the snow from the blizzard that crippled the U.S. Northeast on Jan. 23 may have melted away.
But hospital food director Michael West, who witnessed Sibomana's excitement over seeing snow for the first time, said he made sure the boy would not miss the fun of building snowmen or having a snowball fight. As the blizzard raged on, West said, he brought a bucket of the white stuff into Sibomana's hospital room.
"I was soaking wet - he has a pretty good arm on him and he has good aim," West said.
Editing by Frank McGurty, Bernard Orr