Japanese woman who gave new hope to families of kids with cancer

By Phan Duong   August 25, 2021 | 06:00 am PT
At the Hue Central Hospital’s pediatrics center, doctors and families used to think cancer in children could not be cured until Kazuyo Watanabe came along.

One morning day in July, Watanabe, 54, stands in a room in Kamakura City, Japan, in front of many benefactors, sponsors and begins a speech.

The president of the Asian Children's Care League (ACCL) narrates the story of an eight-year-old Vietnamese girl who went from Kien Giang Province in the Mekong Delta all the way to the central Thua Thien-Hue Province for radiation therapy and a neuroblastoma stem cell transplant at the Hue Central Hospital.

Just 15 days after the surgery, she was discharged from the hospital.

She also speaks about a boy from north-central Quang Tri Province, the first in Vietnam with metastatic retinoblastoma, who successfully got a bone marrow transplant.

Cancer patients at the pediatrics center,Hue Central Hospital, and Kazuyo Watanabe. Photo courtesy of Watanabe.

Cancer patients at the pediatrics center,Hue Central Hospital, and Kazuyo Watanabe. Photo courtesy of Watanabe

In the past July used to be a time when Watanabe visited Hue to be next to children with cancer at the hospital. But for the past two years she has been unable to travel to Vietnam every three months like she used to because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

"Despite being separated by the outbreak, my daily work still revolves around children, families and doctors in Vietnam," she says.

Watanabe was a university lecturer 16 years ago. But everything changed after she visited the children's cancer treatment facility at the Hue Central Hospital. She saw poor facilities and treatment regimes comprised of just blood transfusion, antibiotics and basic chemotherapy.

"At that time both doctors and patients thought that cancer was an incurable disease, and 60 percent of families gave up treatment immediately after diagnosis," she recalls.

As soon as she left the room, Watanabe told everyone that "children's cancer can be cured if detected early and with adequate treatment and care."

Two months later she returned with two Japanese doctors.

They examined patients to come up with proper treatment regimes and provided research and other specialized materials for pediatric oncology to the hospital.

ACCL began to organize seminars and training for medical personnel locally and abroad, and invited foreign experts and pediatric oncologists from all over Vietnam to attend.

To reduce the treatment dropout rate, Watanabe personally went to remote villages throughout the provinces of Quang Binh, Quang Tri, Thua Thien Hue, Quang Nam, and others to learn about people’s mindset and instill faith in them that pediatric cancer is curable.

The first child she helped was an eight-year-old boy name Nguyen Anh Tai of Quang Tri Province who had acute lymphoblastic leukemia.

Tai, now 24, says: "Mother Watanabe flew in from Japan, came to the bedside, held my hands to encourage me and my family not to give up on treatment."

Nguyen Anh Tai (left front row) returns to the Hue Central Hospital to encourage children with cancer and meets his Japanese ‘mother’ in 2019. Photo courtesy of Tai.

Nguyen Anh Tai (left front row) returns to the Hue Central Hospital to encourage children with cancer and meets his Japanese ‘mother’ in 2019. Photo courtesy of Tai

Through a number of meetings with medical staff and patients' families, Watanabe and her organization have helped the latter understand about cancer and its psychological impacts and covered their treatment and travel expenses.

She established Ngoi Nha Hy Vong (House Of Hope) to cook nutritious meals for the child patients and provide a place to stay for families coming to the hospital from far away.

Le Thi Tu of Quang Tri Province, 32, mother of Le Minh Quan, a leukemia patient, said Watanabe gave her money to rent an apartment near the hospital and sought donations from many people to help them.

"Thanks to doctors, sponsors and Mother Watanabe, my son was cured," the poor woman says. Quan, now nine, was diagnosed with the disease at the age of two.

Very quickly Watanabe’s efforts produced results.

Dr Chau Van Ha, deputy director of the hospital's pediatric center, explains: "In two to three years the dropout rate dropped from 60 percent to 4-5 percent. So far nearly 600 children have been helped by the organization."

In 2018, the Asian Children's Foundation helped the Hue Central Hospital set up a pediatric cancer department with a team of highly trained medical staff, facilities and equipment of international standards.

Since then it has treated patients not just from the central region, and gets many patients even from Hanoi and HCMC.

Over 16 years of being with child cancer patients, the biggest difficulty for Watanabe has been dealing with the deaths of children.

But, though some of the children might have passed away, she remains connected with the bereaved, helping their families with money to build graves and going to burn incense on the anniversary of their death.

In recent years she also organized trips and invited all families to a temple in Hue to pray for the children who died of cancer.

She was very happy to hear that Tai has a girlfriend and is set to move from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi to work in the media, and that Quan is now taller and has doubled his weight in two years.

What makes her happiest is to hear that children who had cancer and were cured are now going to university, getting married and having children of their own.

Even though she has been unable to come to Vietnam for the last two years, every day she texts families here to advise them to be safe during the pandemic.

She is looking forward to returning soon to the place she considers her second homeland.

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