Acid attack sees Hanoi teacher rise from the ashes

By Pham Nga   May 15, 2020 | 06:00 am PT
Returning to class for the first time after the attack, Huyen wore a wig to cover a dent to her head and a lost ear.

Taking a deep breath, teacher Dang Thi Thanh Huyen entered her class at an English center near her house in Hanoi's Gia Lam District. Her students were surprised to see their teacher after a long period of absence.

- "What happened to your face?"

- "I got burned."

- "When will you recover?"

A beaming Huyen, 35, commenced the lesson, having never dreamed her life would be the same after an acid attack by her former husband.

The couple divorced in 2017, though Huyen had agreed to cohabitation for the sake of their daughter. In March 2018, during a fight, the husband threw acid over her body, in front of their child and Huyen's father.

"Five seconds later, I felt my body shrinking like a plastic bag on fire," she recalled. Guessing it was acid, she told her daughter not to touch her.

Huyen was taken to the National Institute of Burns where she spent five days in coma, the doctor informing her family to prepare for the worst.

Huyen and Dr. Vu Quang Vinh in the National Institute of Burns in 2019. Photo courtesy of Dang Thi Khanh Huyen

Dang Thi Thanh Huyen and Dr. Vu Quang Vinh at the National Institute of Burns in 2019. Photo courtesy of Huyen.

When Huyen finally woke, she found her body covered in bandages. With her vision severely affected, she was bedridden for four months, entirely dependent on her father.

"I thought I could help my parents, but at the time, even pouring a glass of water proved impossible," Huyen recalled. When she cried, the tears stung her face. More than once, she considered suicide, "but I had no energy to kill myself."

She learned to speak like a baby, and five months later, was allowed to visit her little daughter who, after careful explanation, merely touched her mother's arms.

"I was less shocked to see myself in the mirror than by my daughter not recognizing me," Huyen said.

Following cranial surgery and skin graft, she started feeling better.

During rehabilitation, painkillers provided some relief, her body, and specifically her neck so scarred she could hardly tilt her head to drink water.

"My skin was stretched like a rope about to break. Sometimes the wounds bled, but I had to be patient," she recalled. Her parents hid all the mirrors at home to avoid their daughter failing into depression, but Huyen showed courage, photographing her face daily to witness her improvement.

In 2018, she moved to the hospital’s Centre for Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery. After 28 operations, Huyen's face had recovered by up to 80 percent.

The woman has got more self-confidence. Photo by VnExpress/Pham Nga.

A newly confident Huyen has proven nothing can keep her down. Photo by VnExpress/Pham Nga.

"Of all the cases I have worked on, Huyen was one of the most serious, but I never saw her complain or be pessimistic," said Dr. Vu Quang Vinh, director of the Centre for Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery, adding she regularly encouraged fellow patients.

According to Vinh, one patient once wanted to commit suicide, but Huyen empowered her with stories, encouraging her to survive.

While at hospital, Huyen taught a nurse's child twice a week, completed several online courses and utilized social networks to keep abreast of news.

Huyen founded "Cong Dong Nan Nhan Bong Viet Nam" (Vietnam Burn Victims Community) for victims and their loved ones to share their experiences. 

"Each of us has our own tragedy."

Huyen before the acid attack. Photo courtesy of Dinh Thi Khanh Huyen.

Huyen before the acid attack. Photo courtesy of Huyen.

Earlier this year, she was discharged. Doctors told her to stay at home, take rest, and prepare for more reconstruction surgeries. Huyen wants to return to work to earn some more money.

Looking at her mother's face, Nhim, the daughter, is now happier and more talkative then she used to be. That gave Huyen a lot of confidence.

"I am not too depressed looking at myself in the mirror," Huyen said, adding she is not ready to see her friends.

The English teacher is grateful for the supports she received from her family and students. She does not want to mention the person causing all the pain anymore.

"This body is just temporary. The most important thing is the ease of mind. I just want to live happily, make up for my daughter's loss and support my parents."

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