STONY BROOK, New York (REUTERS) - An eight-year-old boy whose lips were torn off during an attack by chimpanzees as he played near a river in his native Democratic Republic of Congo will undergo a rare double-lip reconstruction at a New York hospital next week.
Doctors at Stony Brook Children's Hospital on Long Island will perform the first of several surgeries on Dunia Sibomana on Monday.
The goal will be to restore functioning lips that will improve his speech and stop constant drooling.
During Monday's eight-hour surgery, doctors will harvest a rectangle of skin and a nerve from Sibomana's forearm that will be used to form the circle of both lips, said Dr Alexander Dagum, the hospital's chief of plastic and reconstructive surgery.
Under a microscope, tiny veins and arteries will be reconnected to provide blood supply for the transplanted tissue and the nerve will allow the lips to feel sensations.
The attack occurred two years ago in a war-torn region that struggles with environmental conservation and is home to some of the world's few remaining mountain gorillas.
Taunts from other children drove Sibomana from school in his village bordering Virunga National Park in Democratic Republic of Congo.
He was brought to the United States six weeks ago by Smile Rescue Fund for Kids, a philanthropy founded by retired Stony Brook dentist Leon Klempner, who helped arrange the surgery donated by the hospital and its doctors.
The organisation is also collecting donations at SmileRescueFund.org to allow Sibomana to attend boarding school back in Africa, which costs less than US$700 (S$1,000) a year, Klempner said.
Sibomana is temporarily enrolled in second grade at a Long Island elementary school, where he is learning to read and write English. His native language is Swahili.
He has acquired a taste for chicken fingers and pizza, although he has some difficulty keeping food in his mouth without lips. Still, the 22kg boy has gained weight in recent weeks, Klempner said.
Park rangers in Democratic Republic of Congo are still searching for Sibomana's older cousin, who was part of a group of children attacked by the chimpanzees. They believe he may have been killed in the attack or so severely disfigured that he chose to hide from friends and family, officials said.
Sibomana's younger brother was killed in the attack.
The rangers connected Sibomana with Stony Brook Children's Hospital through famed anthropologist Richard Leakey, who teaches at Stony Brook University. One of the rangers accompanied the child to the United States, while Sibomana's widowed father stayed behind.
In a subsequent surgery, muscle from Sibomana's cheek will be used to allow him to move his new lips, Dr Dagum said, adding that the lips may later be tattooed to give them appropriate colour.
"We try to make it beautiful because we don't want just normal," Dagum said, noting that Sibomana would be the youngest recipient of a double lip reconstruction.
Two other known cases involved adults.
During a meeting with doctors this week, Sibomana's eyes sparkled as he used a remote control to raise and lower an exam table, mischievously sticking his tongue out at doctors who asked him to stop playing with their equipment.
"One second!" chirped Sibomana in English as doctors tried to finish his examination.
He then dashed off to a playroom where he hopped onto a red scooter and marvelled at an abundance of toys that will be used by therapists to help him recover from his surgeries.