Nguyen Van Thang is nine-years-old and just finished second grade. He lives in the coastal town of Nha Trang with his mother, grandmother, and 10-month-old brother. Thang’s father, Bui Van Tri, spends much of his time away from his family, as he is a fisherman and works up and down the coastline. His income is about 400,000VND (~$23USD) per month; however, this salary is seasonal and there are months when he earns nothing at all.
Thang’s mother, Nguyen Thi Bach Tuyet, is 31-years-old and is a housewife. She cannot work as she must look after Thang, his brother, and his grandmother. Therefore, the family of five is solely dependent on Thang’s father’s income. The family lives in a lean-to extension of Thang’s uncle’s house that is just eight square meters with a tin roof, cement floor, and brick walls.
The Diagnosis and Heartbeat Vietnam
Thang suffers from Ventricular Septal Defect (VSD), a common congenital heart defect (CHD) that occurs when there is a hole in the wall between the right and left ventricles of the heart. Symptoms of VSD include shortness of breath, fast heartbeats, loss of appetite, poor weight gain, chest pain, and discolored blue skin. In addition, other areas of the child’s development such as physical growth and brain development are affected if VSD is left untreated, and the child also has a high chance of developing irreversible pulmonary hypertension.
Thang was diagnosed with VSD when he was just two-months-old. He and Tuyet, his mother, made the arduous 10-hour trek from Nha Trang to the Heart Institute in Ho Chi Minh City at least five times over the course of his life, and the diagnosis was always the same: Surgery, or else he would die. Lifesaving surgery, however, was out of the question as it cost $3,100USD—a sum that was beyond anything Thang’s family could scrape together. After each hospital visit Tuyet would make the long bus journey back to Nha Trang with her son, wondering how much time he had left to live before his heart would give out.
The VinaCapital Foundation’s (VCF) local partner in Nha Trang, the Sponsorial Association for Poor Patients (SAPP), passed along Thang’s case file in early 2009 in the hope that we could assist him through our Heartbeat Vietnam (HBVN) program. In order to be eligible for heart surgery funding through HBVN, children must be 1) diagnosed by and request heart surgery from a cardiologist of a licensed clinic or hospital in Vietnam, and 2) be officially recognized as “living in poverty” and possess a poverty certificate. Happily, Thang met both of the criteria and was scheduled for surgery at University Hospital in Ho Chi Minh City on March 14, 2009.
Prior to the surgery, we visited Thang and his mother at their home in Nha Trang as well as in the hospital. On paper, Thang’s story is similar to that of thousands of other poor children suffering from CHDs in Vietnam, but in person, he is a sparkling ball of life in a very tiny body. He weighed just 16 kilograms (35 lbs.) due to the effects of VSD on his appetite and body’s ability to absorb nutrients, and the fact that his parents cannot afford to feed him more than rice and vegetable broth twice a day. Thang is physically fragile, but he is alert, inquisitive, and carries a certain gravity in his eyes borne of life-or-death suffering that belies his age.
Thang is more terrified of the monkeys that live around his house than of hospitals and needles and big medical machines. He doesn’t want to die, but he doesn’t necessarily fear death. We asked him what his greatest wish was, and it was to have heart surgery so that he could get healthier and play with the neighborhood boys. It turns out Thang’s only friends are the neighborhood girls who make him play with their dolls, as he is too weak to run around outside and play with the boys.
Tuyet’s wishes for her son are just like that of any other mother in the world. She wants Thang to grow up healthy and strong, to go to college and find a good job that will enable him to break out of the poverty cycle that trapped her and her husband, both of whom left school in third grade to work. “Just because we don’t have a lot of money doesn’t mean that we love our son less than any other parent,” says Tuyet, her voice cracking. “Thang is my son, my flesh and blood. I would give my life for him if I could.”
Coming soon: Thang’s Surgery and the Aftermath
Thang’s Journey: A Slideshow
Posted in: Beneficiary Spotlights