Rural H'Mong family's first journey away from home for son's critical medical treatment

By Phan Duong   January 17, 2024 | 09:00 am PT
Residing in a remote commune without electricity in Dak Nong Province in the Central Highlands, Thao Thi Sau and her husband left the village for the first time due to their son's swollen stomach. 

Nearly three-year-old Ma Seo Minh experienced unexplained abdominal pain in April 2023. Tao Thi Sau, 30, and Ma A Cua, 37, residing in Suoi Phen, village 12 Quang Hoa, Dak Glong District, took their child to the commune center for an ultrasound, received the diagnosis of enteritis and a prescription for it.

Yet, Seo Minh's belly continued to grow bigger by the day, leaving the H’Mong couple helpless. A relative then referred the family to a pastor in Long An Province in the south and brought them there for examination.  

Thao Thi Sau recounted holding Seo Minh on the back of her husband's bike, plowing through the forest's dirt road to catch a coach at the market. They were restless the whole night.

"It was our first time traveling such a distance," Sau remarked.

6 đứa con của Thào Thị Sau trong ngôi nhà của họ, tại

Thao Thi Sau’s children during Tet holiday 2023. Photo provided by the family

At Long An Hospital, their only son was suspected of having a liver tumor and requested to be transferred to Children's Hospital 2 in Ho Chi Minh City. The couple was in great turmoil. They had spent most of the VND2 million (US$81.57) left in their pockets on medical imaging and did not prepare any extra clothes. 

After the second inspection, Ma Seo Minh was confirmed to have non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, a group of blood cancers which develop in the lymphatic system. Both Cua and Sau didn't understand what it meant, until they heard the two words "cancer" coming out of the doctor’s mouth. 

A Cua had only finished grade 3 and spoke Kinh poorly. His wife finished middle school but could only understand northern dialects. They often had difficulties communicating with those around them. Later the couple had to ask everyone to speak slowly. Now the couple still could only understand some of it.

Money-strapped, Cua and Sau could only afford one meal a day. After seeing people queuing for charity meals, they began to tag along.  

After 10 days of hospitalization, Seo Minh was allowed to go home and scheduled for return for surgery. On their second trip, the parents managed to rack up VND5 million, and a few pairs of clothes in their bags. Before the departure, their five daughters, from 1 to 10 years old, were separated and sent to stay with relatives.

Seo Minh và mẹ.

Thao Thi Sau and her son Seo Minh. Photo provided by the family

In mid-July, Ma Seo Minh entered surgery. Just a week later, the boy had a perforated intestine, and had to undergo a second surgery. He was fitted with an artificial anus. For three months straight, the couple had to take turns taking care of their son in the ER, as well as lining up for daily charity meals outside the hospital. 

In early October, Seo Minh had his first chemotherapy session. The boy’s health was still frail so the medication process was often interrupted. Near the end of the first infusion, Minh got an infection in his surgical wound and had a high fever for nearly a week. The boy had difficulty breathing and his life was at risk.

Those were the most turbulent days of the couple's life. The doctor called and said he had tried many drugs but could not reduce the fever, and had to resort to an uninsured antibiotic, which cost VND30 million per shot. He would need one shot a day, for a few days straight. 

When asked about her family's ability to pay, Sau could only give a few advance slips from sponsors, but not a single penny. The VND5 million they brought with them was used up for the first surgery. From then until the next few months, hospital expenses came entirely from the hospital's resources, calling on benefactors to help.

"We were penniless. There was nothing else to do but to cry and pray," Sau said.

A miracle soon arrived when the next day Minh's fever was gone so he no longer needed to use that medicine. In the following days, the boy's health gradually stabilized. The doctor let him hang out at the charity home for a day, before coming back to finish his infusion. 

The day Sau and Cua took their child to the hospital, their coffee farm had just begun to bear fruit. Beans had started to ripen when they returned. Sau's youngest daughter grew noticeably taller. The little girl could walk and talk, but she had forgotten her mother and father's faces. Still, she remembered her brother's.

The 17-month-old toddler approached him, and she used her dirty hands to touch his hairless head, and called out, "Minh." Looking at their two little children, Cua and his wife shed tears.

Before being hospitalized, Minh and his little sister were inseparable. When their parents went to the fields, the children also had to follow and look after each other. At night, the two of them would hug each other to sleep. For this reason, on the first day he returned, Nhi insisted on climbing into bed to sleep with him. But fearing it would affect the incision, Sau was forced to separate them.

After a week of resting, Sau and her husband continued to take their child to the hospital. The five daughters were once again separated. The couple was also not at ease being away from their children. When one got sick, they had no alternative but to rely on their relatives and neighbors at home.

Currently, the boy is entering his fourth round of chemotherapy. Since the last two sessions, it has been just his mother and him coming to the hospital. It is coffee harvest season, A Cua has no choice but to hire pickers for it would take him six trips a day, traveling through the muddy road to take his children to school.

Giang A Lin, head of Suoi Phen residential cluster said that it is a secluded, off-the-grid area. It has only received investment for a kindergarten quite recently. Since it is very far from the commune’s center, children have to go to school in the neighboring commune. The primary school is 8 km away, and the secondary school is more than 20 km away.

The dirt road is slippery on rainy days, and dusty on sunny ones. Chauffeuring children to school alone has already taken a toll on the families’ finances and work.

"With a large family as Cua and Sau's, Minh’s illness makes it extremely difficult to manage," Lin said.

Seo Minh cùng cha mẹ nên nương đốt rẫy đầu năm 2023. Ảnh: Gia đình cung cấp

Seo Minh follows his parents to the field in early 2023. Photo provided by the family

Despite his age, Seo Minh is a well-behaved child who eats and take medicines as he is told. Facing painful injections, he always covers his mouth instead of wailing. 

Talking on the phone with his sister is Seo Minh's favorite part of the day. On days when he is feeling well, the boy will chatter away to his mother, tiring her.

Lately, Minh has been upset about not being able to return home to pick coffee beans. At this time last year, he watched his parents harvesting from afar while keeping an eye on his little sister next to a canvas bag full of beans.

This time, he cannot help.

With the goal of rekindling faith in pediatric cancer patients, Hope Foundation, in collaboration with Mr. Sun, launched The Sun of Hope program. Another contribution from the community means another ray of light sent to the future generations of the country. Currently, the program receives support from the Warm Love Volunteer Club.

Click here for contributions and further information on the program.

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