By Trude Bennett, Associate Member, VFP Hoa Binh Chapter #160
Photo credit: Lee Karen Stow/BBC.
While traveling in Central Vietnam in June 2017, I asked medical colleagues if they could introduce me to an older woman of my generation who could share the ways that living through war had affected life for herself and her family. This led to my meeting Mrs. Nguyen, a 63-year-old woman of great dignity who regularly brings her disabled granddaughter to my colleagues’ clinic for physical therapy. With her agreement, we had a conversation enabled by the interpretation of a staff member at the clinic and a Vietnamese friend who was traveling with me.
I later learned that Mrs. Nguyen (not her real name) had initially declined the interview, but then decided it was her patriotic duty to speak to me. I also learned that she lives 40 kilometers from the clinic and her granddaughter was recovering from recent surgery at a local Peace Village that cares for children affected by Agent Orange/dioxin. Mrs. Nguyen traveled on the back of a motorcycle taxi to meet me because she knew that some Americans had opposed the war, and she wanted to reciprocate my gesture of goodwill. Her sense of duty was also strengthened by gratitude. She feels that she is luckier than many other women because her husband survived the war and she had no children with Agent Orange disabilities (often called “Agent Orange children” in Vietnam). It was only in the next generation that she saw the toll of the herbicides on her family.
At first Mrs. Nguyen asked that we not take any pictures, saying she didn’t want to see herself on television. (She has probably seen television programs about foreigners working with Vietnamese, and wanted to maintain a humble profile.) She did want people to know about the plight of Vietnamese families suffering the legacies of war. Like many Vietnamese of her generation, she worries about who will care for those disabled by war when the elders are gone.
Born in 1954, she has no memories of the French war but she has heard many stories. Two of her uncles went north to become soldiers with the Viet Minh, and her father served the local resistance. She became a revolutionary at the age of eight in 1962, serving as a contact person and conveying information from the local population to the anti-US resistance. One of her jobs was to light a kerosene lamp to warn the revolutionary soldiers away when the enemy was in the village. No light meant they could return at night.
When I asked about the impact of the US war on herself and her family, she said the family’s life was totally destroyed. Her father and brother were imprisoned many times. Three maternal uncles who died in the war were recognized by the government as martyrs, and her maternal grandmother was honored as a “hero mother”. While the men in her family were fighting or in prison, she participated in local women’s groups’ activities against the war and supporting daily life.
Married in 1981, Mrs. Nguyen had three early miscarriages and carried four pregnancies to term. During all of her pregnancies she worked full-time and worried about her health. She was frequently hospitalized, mostly due to fevers. The district hospital provided pregnancy care, and she had regular checkups and treatment for her fevers. She appreciated the good service and medicine she received at the hospital, and believed the doctors were skilled and helpful at the time of childbirth. Back at home, her in-laws were able to help her for the first two months postpartum; but then she was on her own. Her husband was working long hours at a local government office, and she took care of herself and all the children while working full-time as an administrative clerk for the local prosecutor.
Two of her children were born slightly preterm, and she felt their health was compromised. They were weaker and smaller than the other children, causing her concern, but they grew a bit healthier thanks to the care of the local hospital. She breastfed each of her four children for two years.
When asked about the impact of war on the survivors in her family, she described how her father’s jaw was broken from prison beatings. He lost all his teeth so he was unable to chew food, and he also sustained brain damage. He was released from prison but died during the war. Her mother died from cancer some years ago. She would customarily have caretaking responsibility for her husband’s parents, but her in-laws have also died.
Mrs. Nguyen cares for three healthy grandsons and one disabled granddaughter. Mrs. Nguyen’s daughter, who works as a teacher, had prenatal genetic screening but her child’s disabilities were not detected. Now 18 months old, the little girl’s congenital anomalies included narrow skull bones (treated with a stent, recently removed), a bump at the front of her skull (also treated surgically), and significant physical and mental developmental delays. Thanks to rehabilitation services at the clinic, she can now stand up holding onto a table, not just sit on the floor. Mrs. Nguyen worries terribly about her granddaughter. She believes the child’s problems came from the war, and her greatest hope is that she will achieve enough improvement to lead a satisfying life.
In describing her own health as “not good”, Mrs. Nguyen told me she had been gravely ill with breast cancer. She had two surgeries at Stage 2, but chose not to have a mastectomy and the disease is now classified as Stage 3. She used traditional medicine and it helped, but three years ago the cancer returned and a tumor began to grow in her shoulder. She can feel the tumor, and knows it is increasing in size. It is not painful but makes her feel very tired, especially in the morning, and she cannot raise her arm.
Mrs. Nguyen knows that she needs surgery. She has been feeling very tired for a long time because of the breast cancer. She attributes her many health problems to cancer: high blood pressure, vision problems, chronic cough, respiratory and digestive problems, and susceptibility to flu. “Everything is affected.” She only sees a health provider when she has a severe health crisis, such as inability to eat or sleep, and seldom even then. She is afraid the doctor will find other diseases, and she is too poor to pay the fees. Above all she is worried about her granddaughter. Even if she had the money to see the doctor, she wouldn’t have time for treatment. If she had to stay in the hospital there would be no one to care for her grandchildren. She told me she is an old woman now and doesn’t care about her own situation, only about the children.
Working and caring for the children during the day makes her forget her own problems, but at night she feels pain in her whole body and sensations like ants crawling all over her. Mrs. Nguyen sleeps a maximum of two hours per night. She has used many medicines and methods to improve her sleep to no avail. When I asked about her nutritional status, she said her pension was too low to allow for a nutritious diet. She finds that age makes her vulnerable to even the smallest changes. For example, she finds changes in weather, food, or other circumstances exhausting.
When I asked how different she thought her life might be if she hadn’t lived through war, she reflected on contemporaries who were not involved in the resistance. She described them as healthier and wealthier with more comfortable lives, though they have difficulties getting work under the current government. Almost all of her family (grandparents, parents, aunts and uncles) participated in the revolution but no one survived. She suffered huge losses and now has less support as she gets older.
As our conversation ended, I asked if she had a message for other women or for people in the US. She replied that she wanted to send a message about the need for inner strength, about trying to be strong in difficult situations. “I don’t want any more war, any more bloodshed. We are all humans. We had a duty to do in the war, but I don’t want anyone to die anymore. Let’s try to live together in peace. The American soldiers were sent here to kill Vietnamese, so the Vietnamese had to retaliate. I don’t want that to happen again. No more wars.”
All of us in the room, three women of different ages and different nationalities, began to relax in our shared sentiments about life and hatred of war. When I offered a small payment in appreciation of her time and inconvenience, Mrs. Nguyen instinctively refused. She did, however, accept a small plush bunny for her granddaughter and suggested we all go for a lemonade together. Before we said goodbye, Mrs. Nguyen told us her first name and happily agreed to group photos.
TO THE READER: You can imagine the turmoil I felt about this interview. A Vietnamese woman who has drawn on great inner strength throughout her life told me of a decision that will likely lead to a premature and possibly preventable death. I spoke to clinic staff about supporting treatment for low-income women and alternative or respite care when needed for their children or grandchildren. The staff were aware of Mrs. Nguyen’s situation and respected her right to make informed health care decisions. They encouraged me to find ways to provide general operating expenses for the clinic, which would remove financial barriers to medical care for more of the clinic patients and allow for additional services such as child care and transportation. I am part of a small project that raises funds to pay the annual salary of the clinic’s physical therapist. Now I hope to develop a partnership with Veterans For Peace to help the clinic expand its capacity to serve people like Mrs. Nguyen. I will share information on the <vietnamfulldisclosure.org> website as plans develop, and I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.