Indomitable spirit of man who saves mother from fire, loses legs

By Ngoc Ngan   June 14, 2024 | 02:30 am PT
Nguyen Thanh Tuan rushed home on his tricycle after selling out his lottery tickets to prepare the daily memorial dinner for his deceased mother.

The 30-year-old living in the Southeastern Tay Ninh Province has maintained this ritual for a month since his mother Thu passed away from cancer.

"I want my house to feel warm, like when my mother was here," he says.

Tuan’s life has been marked by grave hardships. He grew up with an abusive father. In 2009 his parents divorced, leaving Tuan and his brother to live with their mother in a rented house. Tuan, then working as a construction helper, became the family’s breadwinner.

In 2016 a catastrophic event completely flipped his life.

Returning home one day exhausted after a gruelling 10-hour shift, he made instant noodles. While waiting for the water to boil, he attempted to fix his motorbike and accidentally spilled fuel on the floor.

The gas stove’s flame quickly ignited the spilled fuel and a fire broke out. Panicking, Tuan ran outside, but the fire had already engulfed his motorbike and spread around the ground floor.

Remembering his mother was trapped upstairs, he dashed through the blaze to save her. As they reached the door, his trousers got caught in the motorbike. He managed to push his mother to safety before he was consumed by the blaze.

Waking up, he found himself in Cho Ray Hospital in HCMC with 83% burns. His legs had to be amputated. His mother was anguished at seeing his skin charred, and the pain was so intense that he convulsed and lost consciousness, and required strong sedatives to sleep.

Tuan in front of his house in Tay Ninh Province, May 30, 2024. Photo courtesy of Tuan

Tuan in front of his house in Tay Ninh Province, May 30, 2024. Photo courtesy of Tuan

Battling for his life and in deep despair, Tuan contemplated giving up since his family’s funds had run out and there was no one to turn to for help. In a moment of agony, he even spoke to his mother about his funeral arrangements.

Thu remained silent for a while and then asked simply: "How can I live without you?"

Tuan looked at his mother’s greying hair and imagined the heartache she would have to endure if he were no longer in this world. The will to live surged within the young man.

The next day he forced himself to eat and committed to a six-month treatment plan. Moved by his situation, a compassionate doctor shared his story with philanthropists. Thanks to the kindness of a number of people, Tuan received the money needed to cover the remaining medical expenses.

Discharged from the hospital in early 2017, Tuan slowly adapted to his new life.

In the first few weeks he relied on his mother to help him with his daily activities. Then, slowly, he endured the pain of his bleeding wounds to practice moving his hands, holding a spoon, and bathing himself.

As his recovery progressed, he began to walk on his knees around the house, using two metal chairs for support. The burden of putting food on the table for the family of three fell entirely on his elder brother, who worked as a woodcutter.

To share this burden, Tuan discussed with his mother his plan to sell lottery tickets. He started practicing moving around using prosthetic legs and a tricycle.

Initially he struggled to control the vehicle because his right hand was badly burned, deformed and weak with fingers that could not bend. He asked a mechanic to modify its throttle control.

In the scorching midday sun, his face and neck would be drenched in sweat but not his body since the scars covered the pores. He would pant heavily, strength easily drained and dehydrated, but still manage to bring home VND100,000-120,000 (US$3.93-$4.72) every day from selling the tickets.

"I also felt happy because I did not become a burden to my family," he said.

Tuan’s life was peaceful for a few years until further tragedies struck. In Feb. 2021 his older brother died in an accident while cutting trees. Still reeling from this loss, at the beginning of 2022 his mother was diagnosed with advanced cervical cancer.

That evening Tuan sat on the porch of his house, crying uncontrollably, unable to bring himself to tell his mother the truth.

"The illness is not too severe, I can handle it," he told her instead, fearing she would refuse treatment should she learn the truth.

To cover the cost of his mother’s first six rounds of chemotherapy, Tuan sold lottery tickets for 10 to 12 hours each day.

Her hair gradually fell out until she shaved her head. Her health declined, and she endured agonizing abdominal pain. At midday Tuan would hurry home for 30-45 minutes to cook and bathe his mother before returning to work and continuing until late into the evening.

Tuan recalls that he found the days leading up to each round of treatment the most despairing. Even exhausting all their money was not enough for the treatment, and he had to borrow from friends and relatives.

Despite this, he encouraged his mother, saying: "I can sell more tickets; we will have enough money."

However, Thu could only endure until the fourth round, and passed away one morning in late April.

"Before she departed this life, she felt somewhat at peace knowing that, despite my disability, I could still care of myself," Tuan says. "She passed away peacefully."

Tuan and his partner, April 2024. Photo courtesy of Tuan

Tuan and his partner, April 2024. Photo courtesy of Tuan

Thu Trang, a former official at the local Department of Labor, Invalids and Social Affairs, who oversaw Tuan’s case, says, despite his hardships, Tuan embodies a remarkable will to live.

After his fire accident local authorities provided Tuan with social assistance meant for disabled people and a free health insurance card. His life is now on an even keel.

"He is diligent, doesn’t rely on anyone and, though disabled, is not incapacitated," Trang says. "He knows how to rise above his circumstances."

Last year Tuan met a fellow lottery vendor, a woman also with a disability. Bonded by mutual understanding, they regarded each other as husband and wife. She also helped Tuan take care of his mother during the elder woman’s last days.

Tuan’s partner is now six months pregnant.

They go to work together every day, one on a tricycle and the other in a wheelchair. They are saving money, looking forward to their first child.

"After the ordeals, I feel fortunate to have found happiness," Tuan says. "I am just sad that our child will not get to meet their grandmother."

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