Nagalem Haile, from a small village in Ethiopia, traveled to the United States to receive the “lifesaving” 12-hour surgery

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Nagalem's facial tumor removal
Nagalem Haile
| Credit: Northwell Health (2)

A 6-year-old girl from Ethiopia successfully underwent a "lifesaving" surgery to remove a large facial tumor that was limiting her ability to breathe or swallow.

Nagalem Haile was born with a life-threatening tumor on her jaw that continued to grow in size over the years, with the risk that it could rupture or completely block her airway.

"As it expands, these very, very thin-walled veins become very precarious. Minor trauma could result in a major hemorrhage … which can be fatal," Dr. Milton Waner, one of her surgeons at Lenox Hill Hospital, said at a press conference on Tuesday.

Haile lacked access to medical care in her small village in Ethiopia, where they have no phones, running water or electricity, and would "soon suffocate or starve" without medical intervention, according to Northwell Health, which operates the hospital. But thanks to a U.S. government official who met Haile last year during a mission and embarked on a worldwide search for doctors who were willing to perform the risky surgery, the tumor was removed.

"This type of surgery is very difficult, very dangerous and certainly life-threatening," said Waner. "We explained what would happen to the child's father. There was a possibility she may not make it."

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Haile and her father, Matios Alafa Haile, flew to New York City in June so she could undergo the 12-hour surgery, which required a team of surgeons to carefully cut around nerves and arteries that could have led to paralysis or severe blood loss if severed. They also had to reconstruct part of her jawbone.

"We really went at it inch by inch, kind of step by step because it was very vascular," her other lead surgeon, Dr. Teresa O, said. "Fortunately her facial muscles were all intact and not involved with the venous malformation so that was a great thing."

The surgery, which the doctors performed pro bono, was successful, and they were able to remove around 1 lb. of mass from Haile's jaw. She and her father will stay in New York City for a few more months to undergo smaller reconstructive surgeries and deal with any potential post-surgery complications.

Nagalem's facial tumor removal
Nagalem Haile and her father, Matios Alafa Haile
| Credit: Northwell Health

Waner said that "on a scale of 1 to 10, this is a 12" in terms of difficulty.

"It's very, very difficult and complicated. In fact, one of the most complicated procedures we've done," he said.

Haile smiled and thanked her doctors at the press conference, and her father, who said he had prayed throughout her surgery and thanked God when he learned she had made it, praised the medical staff.

"I was crying before but now I'm smiling so thanks to God," Matios said. "She is like different after surgery. She is playing enjoying everything outdoors. There is a big difference. May God bless the doctors, without them this wouldn't be like this."