Da Nang family turns cards on Agent Orange

By Pham Nga   August 10, 2020 | 06:43 pm PT
Experiencing schizophrenia caused by Agent Orange, a family in central Da Nang City refused to surrender to their destiny.

"Who stole my box of needles and thread?" Kim Oanh yelled while her younger sister Le Thi Tuyet Pha, 50, carried a tray of dirty dishes to a well outside.

Pha threw the tray on the ground, dishes scattering. "No one took it, why do you need to yell?" she complained.

Panicking, Le Trung Vinh, 40, took his sisters their medication, gently rubbing their shoulders to reassure them.

With his siblings at ease, Vinh, a resident of Chinh Gian Ward in Da Nang’s Thanh Khe District for 35 years, recalled his family’s tragic experience.

Vinh (L) and his sisters and mother. Photo courtesy of Le Trung Vinh.

Le Trung Vinh (R) and his sisters and mother. Photo courtesy of Vinh.

After the war ended in 1975, their father, Le Ngoc Bich, returned from the battlefield to Da Nang. This was the happiest time for him and partner Ho Thi Lang, their three childen healthy and well-behaved. Pha, their youngest daughter, always enjoyed high scores at school.

As an eight-grader, Pha started suffering nightmares about someone trying to harm her family. Worried, Bich and Lang took her to hospital, though her situation grew steadily worse after a year.

She was admitted to Da Nang Psychiatric Hospital soon after passing secondary school. Doctors here soon discovered sequelae associated with the Agent Orange dioxin present in Bich’s body were affecting his youngest daughter.

Pha grew troubled by a voice telling her not to sleep or eat, else her family would die, according to Vinh.

Both Lang and Bich sold baskets during the day to support their children. At night, the mother would stay up with her distraught daughter.

Already overstretched trying to care for Pha, her sister Oanh started showing similar symptoms, relentlessly scolding her mother.

"My childhood memories revolve around dozens of priests praying for my sick sister. Every one thought my family was cursed by demons, instead of drawing the connection with Agent Orange," Vinh recalled.

Realizing education would be the key to save his family, a studious Vinh hardly skipped a lesson despite the turmoil at home.

After graduating from high school, he was admitted to Ho Chi Minh University of Technology, working as a tutor at night to support himself.

In Vinh’s second year, his big brother, the family’s breadwinner, started suffering from schizophrenia, much like his sisters and father.

To make matters worse, an unfortunate Vinh too started talking nonsense and experience insomnia in his last year at university.

"I took sleeping pills and could not sleep, I was anxious and depressed," he recalled.

Postponing his studies, Vinh booked himself into Da Nang Psychiatric Hospital for treatment.

According to Tran Nguyen Ngoc, hospital deputy director, Vinh was depressed about his future and family.

"I encouraged him a lot, telling him if he completed treatment, he could still resume school and support his mother and sisters," Ngoc said.

"No one thought I could return to school, but the doctor trusted me. His words were my motivation," Vinh said, adding he diligently submitted to doctors’ orders while keeping an eye on his family members’ progress.

Vinh graduated from university in 2004 and found employment as a medical equipment technician at a Da Nang hospital. Luckily, his income was enough to support his family.

Vinh graduates HCMC University of Technology in 2004. Photo courtesy of Le Trung Vinh.

Vinh upon graduation from HCMC University of Technology in 2004. Photo courtesy of Vinh.

However, three months after starting work, Vinh was again struck by illness. Shaking and prone to bouts of nonsensical talk, his employer sacked him.

After another round of treatment, he applied for a job at a driving center, maintaining the computer-based examination system.

With Bich immobile, Vinh spent his days at work and evenings at home caring for his father and sisters.

In one year, he took his sisters to hospital four times after they tried to commit suicide by ingesting sleeping pills.

"He knows exactly what to do when his family members get sick, and what pills to administer. If he is in a difficult situation, he calls me," doctor Ngoc said.

Three months after starting his new job at the driving center, Vinh fell sick once more and decided to quit. His father died shortly after.

The constant strain caused Lang severe depression, making her the final member of the family to enter Da Nang Psychiatric Hospital.

"In 17 years of work, I have never seen such a tragic case. Vinh supplies five health records to buy medicine. Each time, he leaves with large doses of pills," nurse Ung Thi Thuy said.

Vinh is accompanied by his sister Pha whenever collecting medicine at the hospital.

"I take her with me so she can feel happy," he once told Thuy.

Two years ago, when a neighbor asked Vinh to teach her children, he immediately accepted, thinking the extra income could surely help his family.

Strictly following treatment, Vinh has been in stable condition the past two years.

Feeling more confident, he even invited his students home.

"I want them to learn more and for my sisters to have someone to talk to and be happy. I told them they can pay me if they could, otherwise not to bother."

From two secondary students, Vinh soon taught a class of five, with many primary learners wanting to join up too.

Vinh teaches at home. Tables and chairs are bought by a supporter. Photo courtesy of Le Trung Vinh.

Vinh teaches children at home. Photo courtesy of Vinh.

While her brother teaches, Pha stands attentively by his side, memorizing all she hears in class. This prompted Vinh to give his sister her own class to teach.

With the family’s income more stable and mood lifted by healthy interaction, Vinh opened a free class especially for five poor students.

Nurse Thuy, learning about Vinh’s class, let her son join. "Uncle Vinh teaches so well," the boy commented after attending three lessons.

The Covid-19 outbreak in the central city has since suspended Pha and Vinh’s classes, their students all promising to return once the threat had passed.

Nguyen Thi Yen, former head of the local center of social services, has a good impression on Vinh.

"The first time I visited, the five of them looked leaden. But now, thanks to support from local authorities and organizations, and most importantly, their vigor, the family has miraculously improved their condition," Yen said.

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