After an hour long drive to the outer-skirts of Can Tho We arrived at the quaint home of the first Heartbeat Vietnam beneficiary we’d film, Khanh Vy, a plump one-year-old who sat on her mother’s hip. She was cute and chubby, like a healthy baby, but a bluish grey replaced what should have been the plush pink of her swollen infant cheeks and lips. Her two older sisters playfully greeted us outside their home, but their playfulness disappeared once they realized the purpose of our visit. They watched quietly as their family members spoke with Heartbeat Vietnam staff.
Throughout the interview the mother stayed strong, but every now and then tears fell from her eyes. The baby became fussy, and her mother tried to comfort her, but she would not stop fussing. The babies fussing made the mother anxious, it was apparent that the mother had grown accustomed to exhausting all options in her attempts to keep her sick baby comfortable. Eventually she gave in, and went to the side to breastfeed her daughter. The father took over the interview as HTV continued to film.
The oldest sister sat next to her grandmother and watched as life happened around her. It seemed as though she’d also grown accustomed to the misfortune they faced, naturally taking her place as a silent observer to a sorrow-filled situation. Watching, but staying out of the way, as her parents scrambled and worked endlessly to save their baby girl’s life. Coming from a family of three girls, it hurt me to imagine how it might feel to be a helpless bystander in a situation that could mean life or death for one of my sisters, a piece of me.
The mother kept wiping the baby’s face as if she were wiping away invisible tears, all the while, tears trickled down her own.
Nguyen Thi Bich Chau, Director of External Relations for VCF, pointed out a beautiful picture of a bride and groom
that hung in the family’s living room. She mentioned how the smiles in the portrait did not match the melancholy faces that sat across from us. This was a family broken by heart disease. They expressed how they’d given up all they had to afford treatment for their sick baby. And now that they had done all they could, and still could not afford the price of their child’s treatment, they felt helpless.
The cardiologist traveling with us told HTV and the Heartbeat Vietnam team that the baby’s heart condition
was a serious one that would require multiple operations across her development. He added that in a situation like hers, if left untreated, it could lead to brain damage, and even worse, it would take the baby’s life in a matter of months. But, now that Heartbeat Vietnam found this little girl, her family would no longer have to worry about such unfortunate consequences.
This little girl is not alone. There are many families living in rural parts of Vietnam whose stories mirror the story of little Vy. In 2014 Heartbeat Vietnam save 548 kids through surgeries funded completely by donors, and despite Vietnam’s continuous development in urban areas, families who live in remote areas remain hidden and overlooked like the remote regions they call home.
In the past, VCF focused a large portion of its services in the south, and a major goal in 2015 is to continue to expand Heartbeat Vietnam’s efforts into rural regions in the north. However, this last Outreach trip to Can Tho was proof that its work in the south is not done. In one day HBVN examined 69 children, 14 will need surgery.
Families spent their early Saturday morning watching Heartbeat Vietnam staff as we set up for an outreach clinic at The General Hopsital at Can Tho City that began at 7:30 am. Many of the families arrived much earlier than our set start time, most traveling from deeper parts of Can Tho province. The majority of the families traveled over 2 hours on either the bus, and if they could find the money, by Xe Om. By 8:40, Lauara Wannaz, a medical student working closely with Dr. Nguyen Hoang Dinh, estimated that they had already seen nearly 20 children, and 5 of them needing surgery. A number of those cases were previously diagnosed, but because of financial problems, their families could not afford to get them the help they needed. 9-year- old Giau, and 10-year-old Quy were among those cases.
After our visit to the outreach clinic, we once again we got back on the bumpy roads of Can Tho to visit the third beneficiary we would interview. We arrived at a busy market were Giau and her mother met us. They led us down a small alley way behind the market were the family lived in a small tucked away home. The lethargic child had spent most of her life aware of her heart disease, but could not get help because all her official identification documentation had been lost in a flood. Dr. Nguyen Hoang Dinh told us Giau’s case was not unique, but her lack of identification documents made it very special. He also told us that only the left side of her heart is functional, and that the proper cure would be a heart transplant. However, this option is still not available in Vietnam because of the lack of knowledge; instead, he said they will do a two stage procedure that has been proven just as effective.
Aside from her unfortunate health condition, she’s never gone to school because she doesn’t have the official documentation needed to register. When we interviewed Giau’s family, HBVN and HTV were able to locate a local community leader who joined the interview and expressed his commitment to helping the little girl get the paperwork needed to save her life. If this little girl had not come to Heartbeat Vietnam’s outreach clinic, her health would have continued to decline, and she more than likely would not have received medical attention she desperately needs.
Quy was the fourth child we interviewed. The extremely small 10-year-old boy is currently battling a heart condition so severe it has damaged other organs, making it impossible for him to stand on his own.
His lips, nails, and skin were grey, and his mother carried him like a baby into the outreach clinic. Because of his uncured heart condition, he was physically weak and his limbs were thin. Throughout the interview Quy continuously mentioned how exhausted he was.
To reach Quy we traveled by car, and then boat, a journey that took over two hours. We sat in the family’s sun-lite
home. Inside the room we sat in, there were no traces of any means of connecting with the world outside their small town. No computer, no television, and no phone. It was almost impossible for the couple to find out about the HBVN’s work, Luckily a local official informed the family of the outreach clinic, and encouraged Quy’s parents to make the trip. That morning the family borrowed 200,000 vnd to take the bus to the clinic.
As we sat across from the family during the interview, Ms. Chau expressed to me her guilt. She could not believe that in HBVN’s 10 years of work, they managed to miss this very sick child. “Stories like this remind me that if we don’t do our work, no one will” Ms. Chau said as her eyes welled with tears.
The little boy was shy, and ashamed of his condition, something completely out of his control. He clung to his mother’s hip and hid his face. His mother said in the past she brought him to the local hospital but they have not been able to offer him much. In the past 10 years she has been left to watch her son’s health deteriorate.
Dr. Nguyen Hoang Dinh said for Quy’s condition, he should have gotten his surgery within the first 6 months of life, but this child only received medical attention twice in his life. Largely because his parents cannot afford the cost of treatment and travel. His 7-year-old sister, who was much larger than him in size, sat next to Quy. Neither of the two had ever been to school because their parents could not afford the price of schooling, nor could they afford transportation back and forth to closest school. These are issues I’d only read about in surveys about poverty in Vietnam dating back to 2006, almost 10 years later, I could not imagine them still being prevalent. I was naively wrong.
The reporter asked the mother how she felt about her kids’ futures and the mother began to cry and say since there was nothing she could do she just had to let life happen. Seeing a mother feel completely hopeless about the future of her children is one of the saddest things anyone could witness.
Dr. Nguyen Hoang Dinh said he had much hope for Quy’s health, adding that the procedure that will cure him has a high success rate. “After surgery he will be pink and active, and able to lead a prosperous life”, Dr. Nguyen Hoang Dinh said.
Every now and then I’d try and smile at the mothers we interviewed, but they could not smile back knowing their innocent babies were not well. I saw firsthand the way each of the parents we visited wore their sadness like a heavy cloak, but I also witnessed how intimate conversations with experts and HBVN staff lifted some of the heavy sadness that burdened these parents. And when I’d least expect it, I’d catch a smile from a mother or a father. These are the small rays of hope that make this very difficult work worth all its obstacles. Heartbeat Vietnam offers these struggling families hope – a reason to smile again.
All photo credit: Director Lam Thanh Qui