Heroic sister pauses life, cares for cancer-stricken family

By Quynh Nguyen   May 10, 2024 | 03:38 pm PT
Pham Thi Thu Uyen's journey at the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam was cut short seven years ago due to her mother's gastric cancer.

It was only the first time the steadfast young woman would end up putting her life on hold and travel home to care for her sick family.

Earlier this year, with her younger sister also falling sick also to cancer, Uyen had to put her career in Australia on hold.

During a hot day at the end of April, Uyen, 26, residing in rural Thua Thien Hue Province, hardly left her sick sister's bed.

The 11-year-old Pham Ngoc Han suffers from adrenal cancer.

"Our mother passed away from illness. Since my father and younger brother are all fingers and thumbs, I offered to take care of Han," Uyen said.

Thu Uyên đang chăm sóc em gái Ngọc Hân (áo hồng) tại Bệnh viện Trung ương Huế, trưa 21/4. Ảnh: Nhân vật cung cấp

Pham Thi Thu Uyen (standing) taking care of her sister Ngoc Han at Hue Central Hospital, April 21, 2024. Photo courtesy of Pham Thi Thu Uyen

Uyen is the eldest sister in a family of three siblings. Prior to 2017, the family lived off shrimp and fish farming. Notwithstanding the laborious work at high risk of losses due to natural disasters, Linh's parents tried their best to provide for her and her siblings' education.

In 2017, Uyen was admitted to the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam in Hanoi. After the first semester, she learned that her mother was undergoing treatment for stage 3 gastric cancer at Hue Central Hospital.

To cover hospital bills, Uyen's father, Pham Van Si, had to juggle many jobs.

Knowing that her younger brother and sister were thus left unattended, Uyen decided to take a temporary leave from school and return to Hue, despite her family's objections.

Uyen's mother's condition got worse and she died eight months later. Before her death, Uyen promised her mother that she would not drop out of school, and that she would apply for part-time jobs to earn extra money to support her father and her two siblings.

By the time of her mother's death, Uyen's family had fallen deep into poverty as they had spent all their savings on hospital fees.

Si's monthly salary of VND3 million (US$118) was only enough to cover the school fees and daily living expenses for the two younger children. In order to have money to pay for college and have time to take care of her family, Uyen requested to extend her absence at school to work. She stayed up late at night to learn English for self-improvement.

Uyen had planned to return to school after two years of leave, but she unexpectedly received a partial scholarship in Australia.

She then talked to her father about borrowing an additional VND400 million to cover tuition and living costs, not wanting to miss the opportunity. She said she would work part-time to pay off the debt.

Seeing Uyen's determination, Si agreed with her plans. The 60-year-old man also promised that he would try to cut his working hours to take care of the two younger children.

Uyen initially studied psychology, then switched to nursing as she found it more suitable to her strengths. Despite her busy school schedule, Uyen still took part-time jobs to pay off debt, and for her living expenses.

She graduated in 2023 and was accepted into the surgical department at a hospital. Whilst the job did not pay handsomely, Uyen was able to support herself, and even to help her father provide for her siblings.

But Uyen's life took another difficult turn when, at the end of 2023, her younger sister began suffering from unusual symptoms: excessive hair growth, acne, and swollen cheeks, legs and abdomen.

Si took her to the district medical facility for examination where doctors discovered an abdominal tumor measuring 18 cm.

Han was admitted to the Department of Endocrinology - Pediatric Center, Hue Central Hospital, on Dec. 14, 2023. This was when Uyen, who was in Australia, learned about her sister's illness from her father.

"Han was just a typical healthy kid. She is very well-behaved. Every day, she would ask me to play badminton with her and remind me to go jogging in the morning. I just thought of her gaining weight and bloating as signs of growth in children as she was about to reach puberty," Si said.

"The news of her having a tumor shocked me."

Thinking the tumor was benign, Uyen asked her hospital for a three-week leave to visit Han after surgery. Three weeks eventually turned into four months after a biopsy confirmed it was a malignant adrenal tumor.

Han then had to be transferred to the Intensive Care Department due to lung collapse and consolidation on top of metastatic pneumonia.

Ngọc Hân lúc nằm trong phòng Hồi sức tích cực của Bệnh viện Trung ương Huế khi sức khỏe chuyển biến xấu, đầu năm 2024.  Ảnh: Gia đình cung cấp

Pham Ngoc Han in the ICU at Hue Central Hospital, early 2024. Photo provided by the family

Uyen extended her leave for three more months, not wanting to be away from her sister. During this time, she stayed at the hospital so her father could go to work, and her younger brother, a fourth-year student at Hue University of Medicine and Pharmacy, could continue his studies.

All hospital fees and expenses incurred when Han was hospitalized were taken from Uyen's savings in Australia.

Han's health began to decline as she started chemotherapy. The tumor's size also caused urination problems, and the 11-year-old girl needed her older sister's assistance for all daily routines.

"Seven years ago, due to late diagnosis, we lost our mother. I can't let the same situation happen to Han. However tiring it might be, I will try in earnest to take care of her," Uyen said.

Seeing the 26-year-old girl shouldering all responsibilities herself, many advised Uyen to share the burden with her father, but she refused. She could not bear seeing her father toiling away at the hospital after a long day of work. Uyen also did not want her brother at home to miss his education.

Towards the end of April, Uyen received notice that she had to return to Australia or quit her job in May. Uyen was placed in a difficult dilemma since her family was dependent on her and Han needed 24/7 care. But if she still refused to go to work, she would not have enough money to save her sister, and eventually the treatment would be forced to stop.

So, she had to make a decision.

Uyen now plans to hand over the caretaker responsibility to her father and relatives for the time being when she attends to her job back in Australia.

"No one wants to be away from their family, but her battle with cancer will still be a very long and arduous one," Uyen said.

"My working is the only way to cover the expenses. Once everything is settled, I will return home to visit Han," the heroic sister said.

With the goal of rekindling faith in pediatric cancer patients, Hope Foundation, in collaboration with Mr. Sun, launched The Sun of Hope program. Any contribution from the community means another ray of light sent to the future generations of the country.

Click here for further information on the program.

go to top