French mother, Vietnamese doctor rebirth ties after 45 years

By Phan Duong   February 25, 2020 | 01:00 am PT
Marie Hédiard stood in front of the small alley, her legs trembling because she knew that when the door opened, her benefactor of 45 years ago would appear.

As expected, when entering the yellow-painted house, she saw the doctor who treated her infertility over four decades ago, helping her conceive her first child. "Hello, sister Xiem," Hédiard said in Vietnamese, despite not using the language for years. 

Professor Nguyen Thi Xiem, 90, sits motionless in a wheelchair, with Hédiard holding her thin hands. Upon meeting, Hédiard, memories ablaze, tells of her son, aptly named Marco Thang, now the father of three boys himself. 

Hédiard and her second husband embrace Professor Xiem and her daughter, Doctor Le Thi Phuong Lan (in floral dress). Photo by Le Lan.

Hédiard and her second husband embrace Professor Xiem and her daughter, Doctor Le Thi Phuong Lan (in floral dress). Photo by Le Lan.

The story harks back to April 1973, when French Hédiard came to Hanoi with her husband, an Italian reporter covering the "Dien Bien Phu On-air" campaign in December 1972 alongside the Vietnam War. 

Most foreigners at the time stayed at Thong Nhat Hotel, Hoa Binh Hotel or at embassies. Hédiard herself was recruited to teach French at Foreign Trade University. Each day, the young teacher rode her bicycle to school, together with Vietnamese students experiencing a very special historical period. 

"I cannot forget April 30th, 1975, when South Vietnam was liberated and the country was unified. The classroom and the whole schoolyard burst with happiness. We were so happy, and kept dancing and hugging each other," she said. "From the bottom of my heart, I hope the lives of Vietnamese could be less difficult and that everyone could enjoy peace."

It was during this time that Hédiard discovered she was pregnant. More than a year previously, she attended the Institute for Maternal and Newborn Protection (now the National Hospital of Obstetrics and Gynecology) for treatment by none other than Professor Xiem.

"My mother gave me a handmade doll, hoping I would be lucky. But it was Doctor Xiem who performed the miracle," she said.

In pregnancy, Hédiard was thoroughly taken care of by Doctor Xiem, who speaks fluent French and gave her plenty of helpful advice. 

At 2 a.m. in early February 1976, Hédiard successfully gave birth. Placed on a labor table in a land far from home, she was so frustrated and frightened she forgot how to push. Suddenly, Doctor Xiem’s voice permeated the room. "The doctor’s presence eliminated all fear and gave me strength. An hour later, I gave birth to a son weighing 3.6 kg," Hédiard recalled.  

Since her son was born exactly 9 months after Vietnam's liberation, she named him "Thang Loi", meaning victory, along with first name Marco.

Hédiard’s husband kept a photo of Doctor Xiem holding Marco Thang in his luggage on the way home in 1977, the imaging gracing the family photo album for the past 40 years.

Hédiard (L) and Doctor Xiem at Maternal and Newborn Protection Institute, following the birth of Marco Thang. Photo courtesy of Marie Hédiard.

Hédiard (L) and Doctor Xiem at Maternal and Newborn Protection Institute, following the birth of Marco Thang. Photo courtesy of Marie Hédiard.

Life in Italy was harder to adapt to than in Vietnam. Hédiard, with no job, relatives or friends, struggled to care for Marco Thang and his sister. "I often miss my Vietnamese friends, including Mrs Lien who helped me take care of my children, Mr Duong who taught Vietnamese and Doctor Xiem who helped bring Marco Thang into the world."

"Despite the war, Vietnam at the time was still easier to live in compared to Italy," she said. 

After Hédiard and her first husband divorced, she found a job at a university where she met Kurt, her second spouse. Marco Thang, very proud of his birthplace, always looked forward to returning to Vietnam. "He always asked to wear Vietnamese costumes at festivals, which made my daughter slightly jealous," Hédiard said. 

Unforgettable memories urged Hédiard to briefly visit Vietnam in 1998 and 2006. The third time round, both retired, the couple decided to visit Hanoi with their entire family.

"Before the trip, I could not imagine seeing Doctor Xiem. I met many elderly people during my time in Vietnam and worried that it might be impossible to see her," she said. On leaving Rome, Hédiard made a copy of the old picture.

In early December 2019, the couple visited Central Obstetrics and Gynecology Hospital to enquire after Doctor Xiem, with only a photo and name. Asking around, they learned the doctor had retired 30 years ago, with no one sure of her exact address. Leaving her phone number and email address, Hédiard waited anxiously for information.

The next day, she received an invitation from Doctor Xiem's daughter - Doctor Le Thi Phuong Lan, now retired - to meet at her home on Ba Trieu Street. "I am overjoyed to learn that Doctor Xiem is still alive," Hédiard declared.

On reunion day, Hédiard and her husband spent over an hour talking with Doctor Xiem's family. Although the old doctor could no longer speak, she grasped Hédiard's hands tightly when recalling their shared history. "I believe Doctor Xiem still remembers me," Hédiard said, adding Marco Thang, now a 44-year-old computer engineer, was very happy to learn Doctor Xiem was still alive.  

Le Dinh Loc, son of Doctor Xiem, said the reunion after 45 years is one of many joys his mother experienced in the last few decades. One time, a farmer whose son she had helped birth, now grown up, paid her a similar visit.

On another occasion a letter reached the doctor from a teacher in a mountainous area sending her benefactor her best regards. Sometimes, a mere phone call from a former patient she can no longer remember would brighten up her smile. 

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