Snake attack victim regains his smile in Fort Worth

Posted Tuesday, Dec. 17, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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The 10-year-old Somali boy was jolted awake by a set of fangs driving into his face.

A snake, estimated to be about 12 feet long, struck Mohamed Abdulle, a war refugee, as he slept out in the open near Somalia’s border with Kenya.

The boy wrestled with the creature and tried to scream. Other refugees dragged it off of him and killed it. That was 20 years ago. Abdulle spent the next 17 years without his upper lip, which was lost in the attack.

Abdulle, now 30, visited Fort Worth Monday to thank the doctors who repaired his disfigurement after he came to the U.S. in 2010. Dr. Fayette Williams, a surgeon, and Dr. John Kelley, an orthodontist, reunited with Abdulle at John Peter Smith Hospital, where much of the work was completed.

Although he doesn’t know the whereabouts of some family members, Abdulle said the Fort Worth doctors did more than restore his ability to smile.

They have been like fathers to him.

“He thanks God and the two doctors,” said Asli Parker, who interpreted for him. “You can’t imagine how happy he was after his surgery. His dream had come true.”

First, nightmares

In the years after the attack, many of Abdulle’s nights were filled with nightmares.

The serpent “grabbed his mouth, like it was trying to swallow him,” Parker said.

An infection caused swelling all over his body and a temporary loss of eyesight.

Diane Barber, a curator at the Fort Worth Zoo, said Africa is home to many species of deadly snakes.

“The biggest python in that region would be an African Rock Python,” she said. “There are also venomous snakes that would definitely cause the damage described. Constrictors, such as pythons, will bite their prey first to hold them in place while constricting with their coils, resulting in suffocation.”

After the swelling subsided, Abdulle regained his eyesight. But as he and his two brothers drifted among refugee camps in Kenya and Uganda, doctors said they could not repair his face.

With no upper lip, his mouth bled often. Contact with extreme temperatures, hot or cold, was painful. He had trouble eating and speaking.

His mother died in Uganda. On Monday, he said he doesn’t know if his father and sister are alive.

Although life was grim, Abdulle dreamed of a better future, which started to materialize when Catholic Charities helped arrange for him to come to the U.S.

Then, dreams of a future

Abdulle was selected for refugee resettlement and came to Fort Worth from Uganda in 2010. He met Parker, also a native of Somalia, who arranged for him to meet with the doctors at JPS.

Dr. Williams, a faculty member in the Department of Oral Maxillofacial Surgery at JPS, evaluated Abdulle and knew he could help.

Williams performed a “vermilion switch flap,” a surgical technique in which part of the bottom lip is removed, flipped upside down and then attached in place of the original upper lip.

Williams said Monday that the technique has been around for a couple of hundred years, and is commonly used to treat people with lip cancer.

He said Abdulle was his first patient, “who actually looked forward to the surgery.”

“I looked at his lip and said, ‘I think I can help you,’ ” Williams recalled. “I could see his smile, even without an upper lip. Neither of us spoke the same language, yet we understood each other from that moment on.”

Abdulle also needed dental work, which tapped the skills of Dr. Kelley, whose practice in south Fort Worth has been providing orthodontics since 1999.

Kelley explained that without a lip, Abdulle’s upper teeth jutted forward. Kelley removed some of the teeth, then applied braces to realign the upper bite.

Most adults, Kelley said, are apprehensive about this type of work, but not Abdulle.

Kelley, who works with the cleft palate and craniofacial teams at Cook Children’s Medical Center, said Abdulle trusted him like a child patient. Williams agreed.

“We use his example to encourage other patients that, when things are tough, you can dig down deep,” Kelley said. “He had to fight for himself; his courage, resilience and human spirit are unique.

“We say in our office that he is a rock star.”

A new face

Abdulle’s surgery was three years ago, and his braces were removed recently. He currently works at a poultry plant in Nacogdoches, but he comes to Fort Worth for follow-up appointments at Kelley’s office.

Parker said Abdulle would like to move to Fort Worth where his brothers have settled. And, she added, with a new face, he says he’s ready for marriage.

Since the surgery, nightmares of the attack have gone away and now he sleeps through the night. But he believes the turmoil of his past “was meant to be.”

“I felt that everything was in God’s hands,” he said, with Parker translating. “I asked him to help me and he did.

“I thank God my time was not finished.”

Bill Miller, 817-390-7684 Twitter: @Bill_MillerST

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