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Borneo girls return home following successful surgeries

by Linda Hiller

What a difference a year makes.

This time last year, two sisters from a distant village in Borneo were awaiting reconstructive surgeries to correct severe cleft palate birth defects, rendering them housebound in a village with little tolerance for such severe differences.

The teen-age girls were helped by Michelle Molina Zabell, a 1987 Douglas High School graduate, who had been studying orangutans near their Pasir Panjung village through her undergraduate work in anthropology at the University of Nevada, Reno.

“They were shunned by the village and pretty much stayed inside most of the time,” she said. “The first time I met the youngest sister, Yulie, she crouched and was hiding in the corner. She was not let out of the house because of the cruel treatment by the villagers, and she was absolutely petrified.”

Sisters Yulie, 16, and Ombeng, now, are the younger daughters in a family of eight children. Their father is a rice farmer making the equivalent of $200 per year, and there are no doctors or dentists in the village.

n They arrive in U.S. The girls arrived in the United States under Zabell’s care last February. Surgeries for both girls were done in the Presbyterian Hospital in Charlotte, N. C., where plastic surgeon David Matthews and orthodontist Ernest Rider both worked for free. Other costs were absorbed by the Parker Foundation and from money from fund-raisers, including a dinner Zabell organized at the CVIC Hall last December.

The first surgery for each sister was to treat the severe tooth decay and tooth rot, caused by a lack of dental care and the unusual jaw and configuration in the girls’ mouths.

“Each had to have at least 10 fillings done,” Zabell said. “The older girl had a tooth that she thought had fallen out, but it turned out it had just rotted, because the root was still there. She later said it had been hurting for about three years.”

Following the first surgeries, the girls were each fitted with braces and retainers to bring the teeth into line for the next surgery, Zabell said.

The second surgery for the most severely impaired sister, Yulie, was a 10-hour operation, involving removing bone from her hip to reshape her mouth.

“They found that she had very little, if any, bone and cartilage in her mouth,” Zabell said. “For both the girls, their defects caused them to get constant ear infections, and significant hearing losses as a result. In the case of Yulie, the operations probably prevented her from going deaf.”

The final surgery for Yulie involved taking cartilage from the rib to be used in reshaping her nose, Zabell said.

Ombeng’s impairment was not as extensive as her younger sister’s, and she was finished with her surgeries and home by May.

n Self-esteem boost. Zabell said one of the most remarkable things about the girls’ stay, particularly for Yulie because she was here seven months longer than her sister, was the way Americans embraced these Borneans.

“Yulie’s changes were astounding,” Zabell said. “When she came here in February, she knew four words – onion, garlic, flower and tiger,” Zabell said. “By the time she left on Dec. 13, after her last surgery, she was fluent in English and she was like American girls. She saw ‘Titanic’ three times and cried each time. She loved to shop at The Gap, she liked Aerosmith and said that it was (singer) Shania Twain, who taught her English. She became accustomed to a lot of the American ways.”

Zabell said she talked about the possibility of culture shock with Yulie before she returned to Borneo.

“You have to remember where they come from,” she said. “When they came here, they hadn’t seen TV. One of the first things they saw was a Pepsi commercial that had a woman with six arms – it terrified them. They thought it was real. They had no way to know that it wasn’t. Then they saw an ‘X-Files’ with vampires and they were petrified of that.”

“Yulie said she misses her parents and her siblings, though, so she was excited to go home to Borneo,” she said.

n Living in the USA. Zabell said living with the girls from Borneo, who are used to outdoor plumbing and cooking over a fire, had its challenges.

“We had to watch them pretty carefully, and I felt that it was a big resonsibility – if anything ever happened I would have felt so bad, so I took time off from school,” Zabell said. “One time we came home and they had flushed something down the toilet and stopped it up, so they went outside and chopped off a branch and stuck it in the toilet to unstick it, but the branch got stuck.”

n Stars are made, not born. Home in Pasir Panjung, Ombeng is already a star of the village, Zabell said, and the recent arrival of Yulie has made her a “princess,” as well.

“The whole village is so excited,” Zabell said. “They are now surrounded by the people who used to shun them and they have so much to tell about where they’ve been.”

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