“No, I’m sorry this procedure is too complicated”, “No, this just isn’t possible.”, “No, there is too much risk, I’m sorry there isn’t anything that can be done for her,” these were the words expressed every year to a family whose hope began to dwindle for their daughter.
6 year old, Siu H’Le, every year since birth has been turned away by many organizations and hospitals in Vietnam. Her family, selling land, selling whatever they can to get help, were left with hopelessness. Living up in the highlands of Gia Lai, Pleiku, this family and the village that tried to support them in their needs remained shattered that no one out there could help their daughter.
Until one day, a tourist who was given a chance to tour the village took a photo and posted it online months ago. Through networks this image of Siu H’Le was connected to Myhanh Pham Nguyen, a nurse practitioner for Kaiser Permanente in San Jose and a local charity group in Pleiku called “Funds for the Poor” with Tranngocson Tran and Võ Minh Nghĩa months before the Project Vietnam Foundation spring 2018 surgery mission began to organize and push through whatever obstacle that came there way in order to get this little girl the surgery she deserves.
Siu H’Le who suffers from Treacher Collins syndrome was an extremely delicate and difficult case. But where all said, “No” the doctors of Project Vietnam Foundation said yes. If anyone know Myhanh, she is a fierce and persistent woman that will rip down walls to save a child’s life. As issues arose, she tackled it with the help of Dr. Nathan Le, Dr. Sherie Olsen, Dr. Kathleen Waldorf, Dr. Quynh Kieu and the locals doctors in Saigon and Pleiku. She was determined to help this child no matter what it took.
On March 2, Myhanh and I traveled to Pleiku to pick up Siu H’Le and another child to bring with us back to Saigon. Although before our trip, we made a few stops, one at the temple for the families to say their prayers and one at an orphanage to bring gifts and treats. At the orphanage I witness one of the most awful things a child with a deformity can encounter, I’ve heard stories but when you actually experience the words and see children be halted frozen saying, “what’s wrong with your face, why are you like that, will I get that if I touch you” being that the little girl is deaf or partially deaf, these words are just words, but watching the mother be strong for the daughter was incredible. The father who also heard those little uttered words from the children, filled with pain and sadness, stood from afar as Siu and the mother continued with strength to pass out treats and gifts to the children in the orphanage.
As we finally departed Pleiku and landed in Saigon, the true journey began for the family.
I remember a day before the surgery, Dr. Nathan Le had concerns but prayed for the best. I believe everyone had concerns, fears and doubts. On the day of the surgery, every doctor in my eyes placed all doubts behind, left fear at the door of the Operating Room and just executed their job. It was remarkable. Each stitch, each hand, each volunteer filled the atmosphere with more love, more hope and strength towards one another, combining a team into the working hand of one united.
Because of the diligent and detailed accountability of the surgery administrative team, Mark Ha, Dung Vu and Tisa Nguyen, they were able to schedule Siu H’Le for her long complicated surgery, which occurred a day after the set schedule because of her slight fever. The administrative task is a daunting task that happens in the background of each operation. Still the team pushed on and rescheduled and shifted many procedures in order to see Siu’s surgery executed.
Dr. Kathleen Waldorf amazes me with her detailed precision and the creative art behind her stitch. I’d like to say “the hands of god”, but that day, that whole week, everyone played the hands of god, so too me, she is a woman with strength, confidence and a vision to allow hope to flow into the seams of her stitches and for miracles to be mended by smiles she delivers each child, no matter how challenging the case.
Once the surgery was over, Siu was returned back to her mother in the recovery room. Here Nurses Jigna Patel, Nory Lam and Tina Dang assisted in making sure Siu’s post op recovery went smoothly. The mother with tears of joy and an unbelievable smile was given the chance to believe again that anything was possible. The father who anxiously awaited in he pre op room was filled with joy when both daughter and mother came back out.
As Siu’s recovery was taking place and before leaving Saigon, Myhanh Pham Nguyen and Le Ngoc Phi Long decided it would be great to give her a joyful time around town. Finally upon departure, the family waived goodbye and flew back to Pleiku to stay another 7 days at a hospital in order for Siu’s operation to heal.
7 days later, I flew back with volunteer Chad Tee (Chat Tran) and local Vietnam entertainer La Bê Lê to help bring Siu H’Le home.
Every year I’ve photographed many children who go through surgery before and after. It is only now I was able to experience what joy a child feels once she is able to smile fully and for the first time eat something solid without it falling out of her mouth. Upon returning to the village, the family came together, the village all heard and came to gather. From the words of the charity group “Funds for the Poor” it was mission impossible and only Project Vietnam Foundation made this mission for all of us something that we can never forget.
In the beginning when we first picked up the family, there was like a cloud of sadness and shattered hope, but on this day, it was a sunny day filled with laughter and joy. Everyone wanted to be careful with what Siu H’Le did that day but the strength that was in that girl was magical. She grabbed her little bike with no training wheels and at first people wanted to help her ride and so she did, she laughed but at the end, she picked up her own bike and did it on her own. At one moment she gave this look of thumbs up to her mom and her mom smiled with joy.
This truly was a heart warming story and I thank you all who let me be apart of this amazing journey. Below is a selected set of images of Siu H’Le story.
Thank you everyone for your generous donations that yearly helps stories like Siu H’Le come true.
Let us share the Love, because the love we can bring to those in need can conquer all and spark miracles to life.
The source of love is deep in us and we can help others realize a lot of happiness. One word, one action, one thought can reduce another person’s suffering and bring that person joy”
-Thich Nhat Hanh
-Thank you Siu H’Buyt for entrusting your daughters smile, hopes, and dreams to us.
-Thank you unknown tourist who posted her picture in a cry for help.
-Thank You Tranngocson Tran and Võ Minh Nghĩa and Funds for Poor Patients for being her local liaison.
-Thank You Kelly Kiều Như for connecting PVNF with Funds for the Poor.
-Thank you Việt Flames, Dr. Sherie Olsen, and Heart Institute Of HCM City for evaluating H’Le’s heart to ensure that she is safe for surgery.
-Thank you Huy Vu and James Pham for your generous donation for H’Le’s Care.
-Thank you to Carolyn Trần Quyên-Quyên for sponsoring H’Le and her family’s tickets to Saigon
– Thank you Becky Ly and Dr. Nathan Le , our anesthesia team lead for your late nights applying for the video laryngoscope to tackle this difficult intubation. I know you had to kneel and prayed hard for H’Le while intubation her”
-Thank you Dr. Kathleen Waldorf for your golden hands. You’ve given this child a new smile and new lease in life.
-Thank You Thao T. Nguyen and your family for generously sponsoring H’Le and her family’s plane tickets home from Saigon.
-Thank you Funds for Poor Patients and Gia Lai Pediatric Hospital for taking care of H’Le while her wounds heal.
-Thank you Mark Magadia Samala and Le Ngoc Phi Longfor your pictures which tells a thousand stories.
-Thank you to all PVNF volunteers for your skills, dedication, and hard work to make this dream possible.
And most important of all, Thank you to all our friends, family, and donors for your Love, support, And generosity!