War veteran opens rehab center to support Saigonese drug addicts

By Minh Tam   October 4, 2022 | 05:31 am PT
Dr Nguyen Huu Khanh Duy is observing patients’ movements on a surveillance camera when a staff member rushes in and says, “We have an emergency.”

The director of the Thanh Da Drug Addiction Rehabilitation Center in Ho Chi Minh City’s Binh Thanh District quickly heads to the treatment room to check on a young woman.

After 30 minutes he returns and says, "She just got high blood pressure and is now in stable condition."

Cases like this occur daily, he says.

"Many patients pretend to be sick in order to get out of the center, but they can't get past my eyes," he says, removing his white blouse and placing the stethoscope on the table.

Dr. Nguyen Huu Khanh Duy checks surveillance footage to monitor his patients at Thanh Da Drug Addiction Rehabilitation Center on Sept. 15, 2022. Photo by VnExpress/MinhTam

Dr Nguyen Huu Khanh Duy monitors inmates at the Thanh Da Drug Addiction Rehabilitation Center on surveillance cameras on Sept. 15, 2022. Photo by VnExpress/MinhTam

In the past 23 years the 76-year-old doctor has treated thousands of young drug addicts. Patients and staff refer to him as "Godfather," "Grandfather" or simply "Dad."

He said his experience as a spy during the Vietnam War led him to this career by happenstance.

After graduating from Saigon Medical University in 1973, he became a spy and was tasked with surveilling the security department of Saigon - Gia Dinh (a former province in South Vietnam) where he worked as a medical officer in the Saigon Army's 258th Marine Brigade.

There he saw many soldiers turn to narcotics to forget their loneliness and overcome the horrible images they saw on the battlefield.

"Seeing innocent people perish to the pistol of enemies, who were high after using narcotics, made me despise drugs," he says.

After the war he served in a variety of posts, including chief doctor of Chi Hoa Prison, where he spent nine years treating hundreds of heroin addicts.

He realized that drugs were becoming a "new adversary" out to destroy the young generation while working in the People's Assessor within the judicial system in numerous drug-related trials.

"I got the opportunity to approach young addicts, learn about their circumstances and reasons why they start abusing narcotics. I told myself that I need to help youngsters escape this dead-end street."

He retired in 1999, at the age of 52, and asked his friends to help him establish the Thanh Da Drug Addiction Rehabilitation Center.

He says the first five years were the most challenging.

He had to search hard to find materials on drug addiction since they were not readily available in Vietnam at the time. He went to conferences to gather materials and learn from foreign experts.

At home, he spent his free time reading and studying about drugs and addiction, particularly psychiatric therapy.

The center can accommodate 15-20 patients, all of whom throw temper tantrums, curse and behave aggressively when experiencing withdrawal symptoms.

"To stop them, staff have to approach them and hug them tightly," he says. "A friend of mine was so terrified of what he saw that he decided to quit."

At the center, inmates must follow a strict regimen like in military barracks, including waking up and exercising in time, keeping their living area clean, studying, and working. This is largely aimed at helping addicts reestablish good behavior.

His treatment method has helped over 20,000 patients recover both physically and mentally.

Duy and his staff assist a patient at the rehab center. Photo by VnExpress/Minh Tam

Duy and his staff assist a patient at the rehab center. Photo by VnExpress/Minh Tam

During his 23 years of running the center he has often seen tears in parents’ eyes when they bring their children.

There are parents who are desperate because their children have been to rehab many times but relapsed into addiction. There are youngsters who put a knife to their mother’s neck to get drug money.

"Stories like these push me into doing what I do."

He narrates the case of an 18-year-old patient named Trinh, who came to the center in early 2021 for addiction to laughing gas.

"She initially refused to comply, constantly claiming she was perfectly normal. But she would smash objects when the craving kicked in. I was always by her side because I knew she didn't have parents was living with her brother."

She was discharged after more than a year of treatment. She wanted to stay at the facility to support him and the staff but he turned down her request.

"Not just Trinh but many other cured patients want to return to the center to see old friends and work here. But I tell them to forget the past and the time they were here. Memories of drug abuse can actually harm cured patients and cause them to return to their old ways."

Le Hoang Son, 39, a patient from Tan Phu District, says the rehab center is like home for him.

"Grandfather is a very strict man, but loves us deeply. Everyone here adores him. I have high regard for him."

The center has recreational and amusement facilities like karaoke rooms, gaming machines, table tennis, a cinema and others.

Duy believes these help addicts release tension and help them reclaim a way of life that drug addiction has taken away.

He says he has devoted his life to the center and usually only returns home after his "children" have gone to bed.

At home, his surveillance cameras remain on at night.

"I have to observe every activity of the youngsters."

He plans to stay at the center for a few more years and says he has spent the last 10 years training his successor.

"I will stop when my health no longer allows me to continue. I find working in this profession makes me feel like I am living a meaningful life and helping improve society."

He says treatment costs a lot of money but most addicts are poor, and so hopes kind people will pitch in to help them.

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