Three children from southwest Vietnam’s Mekong Delta have spent this past month at the University Medical Center in Ho Chi Minh City receiving three heart procedures after VinaCapital Foundation granted the funds for their cases.
During a visit by VCF staff in late May, broadcasted on the city’s news channel HTV, the families of the children settled in a hospital room, eagerly listening to each other’s stories of financial hardship and anxiety for the outcome of the procedures.
Both open-heart surgeries and non-invasive intervention procedures are difficult to perform in developing nations due to the cost of the operations. According to a report titled, “Catheter interventions for Congenital Heart Disease in Third World Countries” published in Pediatric Cardiology in June 2005, “Pediatric cardiac interventions and surgery are not affordable to most families in the developing world because the overwhelming majority of families are not supported by health insurance.”
In an interview with VCF, the three children and their parents recollected their journeys to the hospital, their concerns for the future, and their goals for the start of a new life.
One-month-old baby Duy Phuoc weighs 7 kilograms and bounces in his mother’s arms as his eyes gleam with curiosity around the hospital lobby. A few strands of black hair taper at the nape of his neck. He received his first open-heart surgery last month.
Phuoc comes from a small community along the Mekong Delta about 90 kilometers away from the hospital. His mother, Huynh Thi Thai Thanh, peddles lottery scratch tickets and Phuoc’s father once worked as a day laborer but his back has become weaker during heavy lifting, making it difficult for him to find work.
Though Huynh, 29, is grateful that her son will be given a new lease on life, she said she feels as if her “journey never ends.” She has two other sons, and makes about 5 to 7 U.S. dollars per day depending on whether the weather is accommodating to her moving along the sleepy village selling scratch tickets.
“Selling tickets is not enough for a meal,” she said later adding, “I don’t know how my child will be fed. My mind is awake all of the time.”
Phuoc is now waiting until next year when he doubles his weight to receive his final heart surgery.
It’s hard to believe Thanh Hau, a bubbly ten year old, wearing a fuchsia blouse and a ponytail, could have undergone a heart intervention this past month.
Hau’s family also belongs to the minority community along the Mekong Delta. Her parents explained that they were afraid there would not be enough money for Hau’s expenses after spending 6 million dong, about $300 U.S dollars, for Hau’s travel and food during the past month. Currently Hau’s father works seasonal jobs selling shrimp along the delta and Hau’s mother spends her time taking care of Hau and her ailing grandfather.
But Hau’s mother, Ut, still smiled. “Now I want her to go back to school,” she told VCF.
She expressed her desire for Hau to now lead a normal life after her successful heart intervention — a procedure opening narrow coronary arteries without a large incision on the heart and chest, to improve blood flow to the heart.
Hau told VCF that she was most excited about being a part of her math and literature classes as well as playing with her friends after missing twenty days of school due to her operation.
Hau’s goal, is to one day become a math teacher.
Luan “To Debate”
Luan, a soft-spoken but thoughtful 14-year-old, has battled congenital heart disease all his life. When he was about seven years old he discovered that he was not like other children. He received his first heart operation funded by the government and two years later another hospital told him he needed to replace both his heart and lungs in order to live a normal life.
He told VCF that he wishes he could play football like his friends but with his critical heart condition, he would never receive that chance.
Luan is diagnosed with Pulmonary Atresia and a Ventricular Septal Defect Type III, which is a rare and complex form of congenital heart disease that limits the amount of blood and oxygen delivered to his lungs.
“In general terms, his pulmonary artery, which carries blood to the lungs for gas exchange, is totally absent. Abnormal vessels directly originating from the aorta supply blood to the lungs. However, these abnormal vessels, called collaterals, are significantly narrowed. The amount of blood to the lungs for gas exchange is, therefore, severely reduced,” explained Dr. Dinh of the University Medical Center.
Luan’s condition prohibits him from participating in many physical activities because of the lack of oxygen to his lungs, which could trigger a host of other medical issues.
“Consequently, Luan became more and more blue,” Dr. Dinh said adding, “This not only restricts Luan’s normal physical activity but also exposes him to a greater risk of important complications.”
Luan’s father told VCF about the most difficult moment in his life when the doctor noted that his son’s heart operation had a percentage of risk.
“We had to make a choice,” he told VCF through an interpreter. “I had to believe the doctor will do the best for my son,” said the mason worker who is struggling to pay the 5 million dong needed for his son’s food and travel expenses. He mentioned that these days he not only worries about his son but also about his young four-year-old daughter and wife who suffers from a spinal condition.
Dr. Dinh noted that with an additional procedure on Luan’s heart, he would be able to have better flow of oxygen. His plan is to open the narrowed collateral blood vessels by placing a stent at the narrowed, weak segment. The procedure will increase the amount of blood and oxygen delivered to Luan’s lungs, while also reducing the blueness of his skin.
Luan’s heart condition was discovered when he was seven years old. But under many circumstances, children suffering from PA-VSD may go untreated by doctors because they do not exhibit any symptoms of the disease.
According to a report published by the European Society of Cardiology in the Oxford University Press in March 2006, many young, untreated patients with PA-VSD are without clear symptoms such as cyanosis or bluish skin caused by a lack of oxygen in the blood cells and many of these patients die in their first decade of life as a result of intractable congestive heart failure or respiratory distress.
Dr. Dinh pointed out that Luan’s surgery is a small step to improve his everyday wellness and that there is much more needed.
“This palliative intervention will hopefully ameliorate Luan’s quality of life and prolong his life span while waiting for medical advancements in Vietnam that may lead to a more radical management,” he said.
Luan’s father still worries about his son. As a result of Luan’s recent procedure he had to miss 15 days of high school.
“How will he find a job?” he told VCF noting that hopefully someday his son will be able to work and find money despite the critical condition of his heart and lungs.
And in keeping his father’s hope, Luan also has a distinct goal in mind. Once his condition becomes better, he wishes to return to his studies because he wants to become a doctor.
We asked why, and he said: “To save other people.”
Each of these children: Phuoc, Hau, and Luan from the Mekong Delta have received funding from the VinaCapital Foundation for their life-saving surgeries, yet the journey does not end for them and many other disadvantaged children suffering from congenital heart disease. Though we believe that with each surgery they are each one step closer to a better life and a new dream.
Text and Photos by: Kamelia Kilawan