As pandemic rages, a 12-year-old grows into an adult overnight

By Phan Duong   June 7, 2021 | 04:00 am PT
As pandemic rages, a 12-year-old grows into an adult overnight
Hien stands by the field hospital gate and checks on her house, May 27, 2021. Photo by VnExpress/Tham Pham.
Twelve-year-old Phuong Nhung has learnt to take care of her 5-year-old brother and the family’s dogs and chicken after their parents began working at a Covid-19 field hospital.

Nhung yawned and looked up at the clock. It was 11 p.m. and her parents hadn't come home yet. Her younger brother, Duc Dat, was despondently rolling about in his bed. Normally, the two siblings would be fast asleep at this hour.

Earlier that evening, their parents – doctor and nurse – went to the hospital right opposite their house. Before leaving, their mother told them: "Starting tomorrow, the hospital where we work will switch to treating Covid-19 patients. So mom and dad have to go and prepare things. We might return late, so you should go to sleep first."

The kids are not unused to being alone when their parents work late at the hospital, so they didn’t think much about it. Through the night they played all kinds of games, unaware of what was coming next.

Tran Thi Hien in a video call with her son in their house opposite the field hospital where she works in Bac Giang Province. Photo courtesy of Hien.

Tran Thi Hien in a video call with her son in their house opposite the field hospital where she works in Bac Giang Province. Photo courtesy of Hien.

That evening (May 19) at the hospital, the parents, nurse Hien and doctor Phan Van Tien and more than 200 staff of the psychiatric hospital in northern Bac Giang Province quickly prepared and rearranged the hospital’s department rooms to turn the place into a Covid-29 field hospital.

Throughout that night, Hien was preoccupied with one thought: "Who can help watch over the children and where can I send them tomorrow?"

Close to midnight, she called her mother in Hong Thai Commune in Viet Yen District and asked: "Is there any way you can pick up the kids and take them there?" As soon as she said it, she realized it was a meaningless question.

Hong Thai is located in the epicenter area of Bac Giang, and has been placed under a lock down since the evening of May 15. People are not allowed to go in or out of the area.

Turning off the phone, Hien burst into tears. A colleague saw this and told her to send the children to her house because she has a husband and daughter in grade 12 at home.

With no other choice, Hien told her children: "Mom and dad have to go to fight the epidemic. So you two should stay over at my colleague Hanh’s house and play with her daughter for a couple days." The kids refused flatly.

Early the next day, she woke them up and spoke to them again. This time, her daughter knew she couldn't change situation, so she cooperated. Dat had never been away from his mother or father for a single night, and getting him out of the house was a struggle.

Dropping them off at her friend’s place, Hien said: "Mom has to go to work. When I am done, I will come and pick you up. Dat, you must listen to your sister. If you do, I will buy a superhero toy when I come back."

Dat was somewhat mollified but he insisted: "Come back to pick me up tomorrow."

On the first day in the field hospital, there was so much work that Hien had no time to rest. Tien was treating Covid-19 patients and "didn't have time to catch a breath."

Nhung struggled to take care of her brother. Dat refused to play, did not eat and did not sleep. Nhung stopped coaxing and tried to be strict, but that only made things worse.

When Hien phoned her children, Dat would not stop crying. "Why did you lie to me?"Nhung broke down, too. Neither the kids nor their mother slept that night.

On the second day, Dat was tired and grumpy. When coaxing failed to get him to eat,Nhung yelled at him and he bit her hand, clearly imprinting four teeth on it.

"I really wanted to hit him then, but I know he was tired, so I ignored it," Nhung told her mother later. The second night was similar to the first. The boy still asked for his mother and refused to sleep. Hien only dared to video call for a few minutes before switching to text her daughter. "The weaker I am, the more miserable my children will be," she thought.

On the third day, the children's aunt, who works at the Provincial General Hospital, picked them up and took them home. She intended to let them play there for a while before taking them back to Hien’s colleague’s house. But they refused to leave.

Nhung told her mother: "Dat listens more to me more at home, so it is easier for me.Please let us stay at home, I can take care of Dat here."

Her mind went into overdrive, worrying about a million things that could go wrong – fire, explosion, theft and so on, but Hien had to accept leaving her children at home alone.

Woman of the house

Nhung knew some basic cooking. She could sweep the house and hang clothes out to dry, but that was it.
Now, the 12-year-old girl had to do everything.

On the first day, she cooked the rice with too much water, but Dat still ate it without a problem. On the second day, she showed off her perfectly cooked rice and even made pork rolls, and cooked soup, "remembering how mother made it."

"My fingers got swollen when I tried to mince the meat," she texted her mother.

At 9 p.m. that day, Nhung had not eaten. When her mother asked why, she said: "I feed the dogs and chickens, bathe Dat, clean the house, and then have to bathe and wash clothes. I was doing chores and urging Dat to eat."

In their parents' absence, the siblings' schedules have turned upside down. They sleep around midnight and wake up at 10 a.m. Instead of having three different meals, Nhung cooks one meal to eat all day. After listening to their parents, they keep the door closed because are "afraid of Covid-19."

One afternoon, missing his parents, Dat snuck out of his room to go out to the front gate of the house. Just then he saw his mother wearing the protective suit, standing behind the hospital gate and looking over at the house. Dat shouted: "Mom! Mom!"

When Hien saw the boy's hand waving to get her attention, she ran away as if she had just done something bad. Hiding behind a pillar for a while, she thought of calling out to Nhung to drag him in.

That night, the boy asked: "I saw you today, but why did you run away?" Hien could only reply: "I was busy."

Dat no longer blames his mother for lying. He is more concerned about when his mother will come back. When he heard his mom answer "I will be back when the pandemic is over," the 5-year-old boy kept silent.

Hien and her colleagues do not know when they will be able to reunite with their children. Typically, a normal working shift in a field hospital lasts 21 days, after which they will be switched out, undergo quarantine, and be replaced by another team.

"But now the hospital's entire workforce has been mobilized, the number of patients is 200-300 and fluctuates continuously every day," said Pham Minh Nghia, head of the hospital union.

Bac Giang, Vietnam’s current Covid-19 epicenter, had 3,211 cases as of Monday afternoon. Tien will most likely be sent to another field hospital, about ten kilometers from his house. Hien is worried that she would have to go too. "If I was sent too, I wouldn't even be able to go to the gate to see my baby."

Nhung still remembers how happy they were last summer when they were able to go to the beach and ride a jet ski. This year there is no summer, no certificate of merit, and perhaps no spending time outdoors.

She longs to be a child again.

"Now I just hope my parents come back soon."

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