Before the historic operation at FV hospital on January 5, 2012, Hai had been completely bedridden and for years had to sleep in a sitting posture on a mattress at his home in central highlands city Da Lat.
Hai had spent all his time watching TV or sometimes taking in the familiar scenery in front of his small house. His only break from the monotonous routine is to talk with his youngest brother’s family and neighbors when they get home from work and enjoy tasty dishes cooked by his sister-in-law.
The 62-year-old Nguyen Thi Cho Con has taken care of all of her son’s basic needs like helping him do personal hygiene, take a meal and take a bath over the past 10 years. The woman said her only worry is her health would not let her do that anymore.
Nguyen Duy Hai and his mom Nguyen Thi Cho Con pictured at their house in Da Lat central highlands city before the surgery. Photo: Q.T.
During the entire time before the surgery at the FV hospital, she lived in a state of constant anxiety, suspense and happiness, all rolled into one.
When we tried to record Hai’s last moments before the surgery at FV for a documentary, she kept pacing up and down the hospital room and imploring us: “Please don’t film him anymore,” for fear that the hospital would cancel the operation on her son, who is known to her by the affectionate nickname of “Chẹm,” if they found any reporters in the room.
The aged mother didn’t want to make any mistakes that could ruin her son’s dream of getting rid of the tumor and getting back his normal life.
Poverty and years of anguish over her son’s conditions have made the 62-year-old woman look older than her age. Her only simple wish was that “someone would help remove my poor son’s tumor.”
She used to be a nurse at Lam Dong Hospital but had to quit the job and switched to collecting plastic bottles and scraps for a living.
Ten years ago when her husband passed away and Hai was completely confined to bed due to his oversized tumor, the mother decided to stay at home to take care of her son and prevent him from negative thoughts when he suffered excruciating pains because of some weather change.
No words could have described her joy when being told an American doctor would come to Vietnam to operate on her son.
40-year-old Nguyen Thi Minh Chau, Hai’s biological sister, is the person who spread Hai’s story to the US charity community.
Nguyen Duy Hai and his sister Nguyen Thi Minh Chau pictured at Ho Chi Minh City-based Oncology Hospital before the surgery. Photo: Q.T.
Hai bore radiant smiles and was greatly proud to tell us about his sister, who resides in Florida with her husband and two children.
Hai confessed without his sister he couldn’t possibly have survived despair or retained any hope of a surgery.
“When I was a child with a 20kg tumor on my right leg, she often carried me on her back over two dangerous slopes in front of the house to take me to Ho Xuan Huong Lake to fly a kite or to any other place I wanted,” Hai recalled.
“On days when my mother was on night duty at the hospital, I cried a lot due to my pain and she would hug me tightly and lulled me until I slept,” Hai continued.
His childhood memories with his sister remain as fresh in his mind as if it was yesterday.
In 2001, Chau migrated to the US. Since then she and her husband Nguyen Van Phung have worked for Vietnamese-owned nail shops in Florida with an uncertain income.
Nevertheless, she still helps her mother and Hai with the cost of medicine and daily food every month.
Hai told us 6 months ago he couldn’t stand his pain and thought about death, but his sister phoned him and encouraged him to live and wait for a miracle.
The miracle was produced by his sister.
In 2009, Amanda Schumacher, founder of The Tree Of Life Foundation, came to the nail shop where Chau was working and found the photo of Hai which Chau always had with her. Touched by the story, Amanda asked Chau to provide her with more photos of Hai so that she could raise funds for him.
Chau and her husband also made 50 charity boxes with Hai’s photo on them and asked nail shops around Florida to allow them to put the boxes in front of their shops to raise donations for her brother.
“Some supported us but some turned us away because they thought we were swindlers,” Chau told Tuoitrenews.
The miracle occurred when Dr. McKay McKinnon, who is known worldwide for successfully treating giant tumor cases, came to know of Hai’s conditions thanks to The Tree of Life Foundation and agreed to waive his fees for the operation.
When Dr. McKinnon announced he would cooperate with Ho Chi Minh City-based Oncology Hospital to operate on Hai on November 18, 2011, Chau shed tears of happiness and decided to fly back to Vietnam to share the joy with and to support Hai.
But her hope quickly vanished when the surgery was cancelled.
Despite being upset and greatly disappointed, Chau refused to give up and tried to find other ways to help her brother.
More than one month later, HCMC-based hospital announced they would accept Hai as a patient and cooperate with Dr. McKinnon to operate on him for a fee of VND252 million (around $12,000), VND160 million of which would be covered by donations raised at home.
Chau borrowed the remaining from her friends in the US.
On January 3, 2012, Dr. McKay McKinnon and his wife came to Vietnam for the second time to operate on Hai.
When the operation on Hai was broadcast live at FV hospital’s conference hall on January 5, most of his family members including his mom dared not watch it. But in the room there was a small woman holding her son in arms who looked fixedly at the TV.
La Thi Thu Hang, Hai's sister-in-law, looks fixedly at Hai's operation at FV hospital on January 5, 2012 through live TV. Photo: Q.T.
She is La Thi Thu Hang, Hai’s sister-in-law, who often cooks his favorite dishes.
“Normally, blood scares me. But when he is transferred to the operating room, I really want to know what is happening to him and want to pray for him so that I can cook tasty dishes for him after the surgery,” she told Tuoitrenews.
Having a little son to care for and a small eatery in the market to manage, she still encouraged her husband Nguyen Duy Sang, Hai’s youngest brother, to go to Ho Chi Minh City to help his mother take care of Hai at the Oncology Hospital, even though his absence meant she had to do everything at home by herself.
Living in a house adjacent to Hai’s, Hang’s family often comes over to see Hai every night.
“If he likes eating any dish, I try my best to cook it for him. However, sometimes knowing we have some financial difficulties, he doesn’t ask for his favorite foods,” she said.