Burned boy determined to live full life

By Hai Hien   June 21, 2023 | 01:07 am PT
Vu Quoc Linh was only 3 years old in 2011 when his father doused him in gasoline and burned the small child alive as his way to show disapproval after Linh's mother filed for divorce.

Linh survived, but the incident left the boy disfigured with burns over 87% of his body. No one, including his doctors, thought he would ever lead a normal life again.

But despite repeated surgeries and other difficulties, the 15-year-old young man has lived an increasingly more healthy, full and satisfying life.

His mother, Le Thi Ha, calls it a miracle.

"When Linh was discharged from the hospital after four months, I was worried that he would cry if he saw himself in the mirror," the 39-year-old woman says. "So I hid all the mirrors in my house."

Despite his mother’s worries, Linh now confidently faces his reflection in the mirror. He even jokes with his mother sometimes, asking: "Do I look like an alien?"

Then he picks up a brush or comb to style the remaining few hairs on his head. "Aliens in sci-fi films often appear with a big head and wrinkled-skin, just like me," he says.

Linh during a trip with his mother before enrolling in primary school. Photo courtesy of Linhs family

Linh during a trip with his mother before enrolling in primary school. Photo courtesy of Linh

But Linh was not always that optimistic.

In the more insecure and self-conscious days of his youth, he used to cover himself from head to toe when he left the house. He had an inferiority complex and didn’t want anyone to see his scars.

But his mother encouraged him to be brave and said only he could ostracize himself.

"You are the one that is abandoning you, other people aren’t doing it to you," she said when she saw him hide himself.

Now when strangers look at him, he looks back until they are the ones who are embarrassed, not him. Sometimes he’ll even engage children who stare or cry when they see him:

"Do I look like the multi-talented Spider-Man?" he asks.

Love heals wounds

Ha has seen how painful all the surgeries have been for her son over the past 12 years, including procedures for necrosis, operations to help separate his fingers, and skin graft surgeries, some of which have lasted whole days and nights.

There have been many times when Linh cried out in pain from his hospital bed.

Ha comforted him as best she could: "As long as you cooperate with the doctors, I will buy you anything you want."

Linh often asked for video games and Superman toys. Though he later got used to anesthetic, surgical knives, and pain, Linh held onto the habit of asking his mother to pamper him as a way to help her feel better.

"My mother cried every time I was about to go under the knife," Linh says.

"But as soon as I asked her to buy gifts for me, she stopped crying and agreed to my request with a smile."

Nine years ago, Linh was admitted to primary school, just like any other six-year-old child.

Ha helped him learn how to write to keep up with his classmates, but it wasn’t easy as his writing hand only had four fingers due to necrosis.

"When Linh first learned how to hold a pen, his hand often oozed pus and bled," Ha recalls.

"He cried a lot because of the pain."

And Ha cried as well when she watched her boy’s tiny fingers fail to grip long pencils.

But the hard work did pay off. Although his handwriting started extremely messy, Linh eventually learned to write smoothly and in impeccable penmanship.

He went on to complete his primary and secondary school education. Linh enjoyed going to school, and was only absent on days when his wounds gave him flare-ups of intolerable pain.

"Linh is very sociable," says Linh’s homeroom teacher Tran Thi Hong Hoa.

"Even though he is exempted from tasks such as cleaning the classroom due to his condition, he still participates."

Hoa says that even these days Linh’s fingers still bleed sometimes when he writes, but that doesn’t deter him. He stops the bleeding with bandages, and continues writing, she says.

Linh does not consider himself disabled.

At age 7, after completing his fourth surgery, which enabled him to move his neck and arm again, Linh said he wanted to learn how to ride a bike.

Ha hesitated at first, as the doctors warned that Linh could easily collapse if he exercised too much. Much of his skin is now scar tissue, which lacks pores, so the boy can’t sweat normally. That means his body can’t cool itself properly, so he needs to avoid heating himself up. But Linh still insists that he can be like the rest of his classmates.

So his mother agreed to teach him to ride in the afternoons.

Linh admits that he felt unbearably hot when he first started learning to ride, especially on sunny days. He had to stop every few minutes to breathe.

"I saw on television that animals that do not have sweat glands cool their bodies down by breathing with their mouths open and their tongues out," Linh says.

"So I decided to try."

Then, after a week of practice, Linh could ride a bike.

Linh when he was two years old, before the incident. Photo courtesy of Linh’s family

Linh when he was two years old, before the incident. Photo courtesy of Linh

Now at age 15, his scarred body does not prevent Linh from pursuing his passions. He likes wearing sporty clothes and dancing to the melodies of K-pop songs. He also takes care of his 9-year-old brother when Ha is not at home, He often prepares meals and cleans the house.

His brother sometimes imagines and draws Linh’s face without the scars. Linh smiles and says, to both his brother and himself: "No matter how it turns out, being able to live is happiness itself."

Linh once said he wanted to be a firefighter in the future. Ha urged him to reconsider because she worried about his health. Linh understands her point of view, but he is still trying to pursue his dream. He wants to attend a university, although he knows Ha would have difficulty supporting him as a single mother.

The 15-year-old boy will soon travel to South Korea to undergo another major surgery. Ha hopes he will ask her to buy him a treat. She looks forward to seeing his bright smile when he wakes up with her beside his bed.

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