NHA TRANG, Vietnam (AFP) — John McCain's wife on Thursday visited a US charity working in Vietnam, the country where the Republican Party's White House hopeful spent five and a half years as a prisoner of war.
Cindy McCain, 54, toured a hospital in which Operation Smile was arranging for children with facial deformities to receive free plastic surgery aboard US Navy hospital ship USNS Mercy, docked off Nha Trang.
Among those she met was Phuoc Thi Le, an 11-year-old girl born with a cleft lip and cleft palate whose life-changing surgery was organised by the US couple.
McCain recounted how she and her husband first heard about Le in 1997 from a relative of the girl's whom they met by chance in an Arizonan restaurant.
The McCains raised funds to help baby Le, and Cindy McCain flew to Vietnam to bring her to the United States, where Le underwent corrective surgery and stayed at their family home for several months.
"He (the relative) came to me with a picture and said, 'Can you help me, can you help me with this little girl?'," she said.
"And I said 'sure' and I came and I was able to find her. So when she was a baby we had her cleft palate fixed, and now look at her!"
"Thanks to the operation she looks prettier now," the girl's father Le Van Than told AFP. "She has a chance to be loved by many people."
As the media crowded around McCain, a former beauty queen who is a wealthy heiress, Operation Smile chief medical officer Randy Sherman said she was deeply committed to charity work.
"Cindy McCain has been involved with charities for quite some time and has given a great deal of attention to kids like this," he said.
McCain's staff stressed that her visit was private and not related to the political campaign of her 71-year-old husband, the presumptive presidential nominee of the Republican Party.
She will also visit Thailand and Cambodia during her trip to Asia, on which she has been accompanied by Meghan, the couple's 23-year-old daughter.
When he was a pilot in the Vietnam War, John McCain was shot down over Hanoi in 1967 and jailed for five and a half years, mostly in the infamous "Hanoi Hilton."
He was later instrumental in re-establishing bilateral ties between Washington and Hanoi.
"I'm sorry my husband is not with us," Mrs McCain told officials at a welcoming ceremony. "As you know, he has a fondness for Vietnam."
Operation Smile has treated more than 115,000 children born with cleft lips, cleft palates and other facial deformities. The group also trains local medical professionals in 26 partner countries and donates medical equipment.
The USNS Mercy and Operation Smile previously visited the Philippines and are due to sail on to East Timor and Papua New Guinea, offering reconstructive surgery to some 350 children with cleft lips and cleft palates.
In 1993, the McCains adopted a child born with a cleft palate from Mother Teresa's orphanage in Bangladesh and named her Bridget. She was successfully treated in the United States and is now 16 years old.
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