Caring for patients is one of the many demanding jobs done by the Vietnamese poor. Though doing the work is full of hardships and even danger, the carers do it to offer comfort to the disabled and a brighter future to their family. Thanh Tung reports.
Each day brings carers a physically and mentally challenging workload In the dank heat of a bathroom at Hanoi’s Bach Mai Hospital’s Neuropathology Department, Nguyen Thi La is struggling to lift 76-year-old Pham Thanh Lien, who suffers from a massive brain trauma, out of a wheelchair.
La, a skinny 35-year-old woman, slowly lowers the aged Lien into a plastic chair, takes off her clothes and begins to bathe her.
At the Central Hospital for Tuberculosis, a man named Pham Quoc Hoan, 40, is trying to remove tiny pieces of chicken that are stuck between the molars of an almost toothless 80-year-old man.
“Stop it! You’re hurting me,” the old man exclaims, shaking his head. He suffers from both Parkinson’s, a degenerative nerve disease, and final-phase pulmonary tuberculosis.
Neither La nor Hoan are nurses. They aren’t related by blood or connected by family to their charges in any way. Instead, both La and Hoan were hired to take care of elderly and disabled patients whose children and family aren’t available to stay by their side.
In a fast-growing industry, there are many people throughout Vietnam who earn a living caring for the sick and elderly in hospitals or homes.
Bread and butter
Most of the care assistants come from rural areas. They tend to be poor farmers whose lives were confined to buffalo breeding and paddy fields. Many cannot make ends meet, are in debt, unemployed and leave their rural homes for the city in the hope of a brighter future.
Determined to make a living, they work to raise money for their families and the future of their children. They even accept sleepless nights at hospital gates waiting to be hired to serve the sick.
Nguyen Thi La, whose husband is serving a 15-year jail term for drug trafficking, has to leave her three sons and husband’s weak parents in Hung Yen for Hanoi and hopes to find a decent job. She has a big dream to lift her family out of a VND7 million ($437) debt, which is equivalent to the cost of a normal phone widely used in the city.
After days of roaming about in the city in vain, she met an old friend who introduced her to Pham Thanh Lien’s daughter, who is in need of a carer for her mother who suffers with brain trauma.
“Lien is now nearly unconscious. Her brain trauma was caused by a brick that fell on her head from a construction site,” she said.
“I did not think I could have found such a job. I have been looking after Lien for three months with a monthly salary of VND1.5 million ($94),” La said.
Another case involves 58-year-old Pham Thi Mo from Bac Giang province, who is looking after Nguyen Thi Be, 83, in the Hanoi-based Viet Duc Hospital. Be suffers from schizophrenia and has a broken leg caused by a car accident.
“I have been looking after Be for 10 days. Early last week another woman cared for her but she left because Be can be a little awkward,” said Mo, who has worked as a care assistant for three years.
“Whenever she wakes up, she often swears and drives me away and refuses to contact to anyone. Yesterday, she threw a bowl at my face,” Mo said unhappily. “But I have no other choice and must look after her. I am paid VND50,000 ($3.1) per day which I never would have never dreamt of earing in my countryside home,” she said, adding that the money she earns will be sent to her home for the treatment of her daughter, who suffers from heart failure.
La and Mo both say they have to work round the clock. They feed patients, brush their teeth and help them with toilet duties. “But I am luckier than scores of jobless people on the streets. Finding a job can be very difficult,” Mo said.
A job full of danger
Taking on the work means that carers are at risk of contracting diseases from the patients.
Hoan’s friend, who also worked as a carer two years ago in the Central Hospital for Tuberculosis, is now being treated for ulcerated limbs in the Hanoi-based Viet Duc Hospital. He caught viruses from a patient who suffered from B hepatitis and last-stage diabetes, which ulcerated his limbs.
Though the job is full of hardships, care assistants sympathise with many of their patients and after months of service they can develop special bonds.
I met 58-year-old Nguyen Thi Ut from the Nam Dinh province when she is massaging 83-year-old Nguyen Thi Duyen’s feet at the her home in Hanoi.
“I have been looking after her for a year and a half,” Ut said with a speech impediment. She added that she rarely gets a good night’s sleep because Duyen often cries out.
Ut, whose mother died at her birth, said she considers Duyen as her blood mother. Duyen had been bedridden for months, which has ulcerated the skin on one of her sides.
“More dangerously, a malignant tumour appeared beneath her coccyx, and it could not be cured by western medicine. Duyen was once at the brink of death,” she said.
“However, we used Vietnamese medicine involving yolk to treat the tumour and in time it was successfully removed,” the woman said happily.
“We want her to stay here for good to care for my mother and tidy up my house,” said Nguyen Thi Tuat, Duyen’s daughter in law, who is directing a rice business in Hanoi.
“I am ready to put her name on our family record if she wants,” Tuat said.
A necessary service
Vietnam Investment Review learned that most of the care assistants find work themselves, or through personal relationships. So far, there have not been any state-issued documents stipulating this work in hospitals and the supply of care assistants is not managed by any agency.
However, in a number of hospitals care assistants are often collected into teams by hospital doctors or nurses and work without employment contracts. When a patient needs their service, the care assistants have to pay a specific percentage of their income to the doctors and nurses.
Nguyen Thi Tuat, Duyen’s daughter in law, said: “We would not be able to care for our mother without Ut. She has saved my mother and indirectly helped my business so much.”
“Care assistants are very helpful. They would have much more work if hospitals organised them properly,” said Vu Thanh Ha, Pham Thanh Lien’s son.
Luong Phuong Oanh, head of the Hanoi-based Rural Development and Investment Join-stock Company’s Rural Employment Division, said: “This service is necessary for the whole society and it needs promoting. In Hanoi alone, a number of private companies have considered this service as a business opportunity.”
“Companies often have to give care assistants basic knowledge about looking after sick people such as measuring blood pressure, water transmission or sputum absorbing,” said Oanh, who has worked free-of-charge for thousands of poor people over the past seven years.
Other companies that offer this service such as Hanoi-based Minh Tam Training Company and Socio-cultural Consultation Service Join-stock Company, say care assistants need to be in good health and diligent because caring for sick people is a special and complicated job.
“In today’s rapidly-changing society, they have provide an indispensable service for the disabled,” said a representative from Minh Tam Training Company.