Heart patients in the state-run Central Hospital in Hue, central Vietnam, know Sr. Anne Le Thi Hue of Daughters of Our Lady of the Visitation as the “Sister of Heart Surgery.”
For the last decade, Hue has given financial help to parents of limited means whose children have congenitally bad hearts, helping thousands of them to get access to heart operations and return to a normal life.
Hue, 69, who is also head of the congregation’s charitable activities, serves as an intermediary between the young heart patients and the Medical Aid Project – Medical Aid for Vietnam, a non-profit organization based in the U.S. and Canada. In addition to funding for surgeries for less fortunate children with congenital heart problems , the program provides free medical care, dental treatment, vision exams, cataract surgeries and medication for the sick in remote areas of Vietnam.
Each year 16,000-20,000 children in Vietnam are born with heart defects, half of them serious, according to the nation’s National Hospital of Pediatrics.
Global Sisters Report interviewed Hue about her work with these children at risk and their familes.
How do child patients come to you?
We have given our ministry to children with congenital heart problems since 2002, so those who have gotten our support introduce new patients to us. They need to have their applications for help confirmed by parish priests. We only provide surgery funding for child patients aged 1 to 13 who are from poor families.
The kids mainly suffer congenital heart defects, such as atrial septal defect, ventricular septal defect and tetralogy of Fallot, a rare condition caused by a combination of four heart defects that are present at birth.
Those kids require heart surgeries as soon as possible to save them. Without surgeries, they will die.
In addition, Medical Aid for Vietnam can’t afford to support older people.
How many children have you saved so far?
Nearly 3,000 children regardless of their backgrounds have undergone heart surgeries at the Central Hospital, thanks to our financial help for the past decade. Annually we help 200 kids from nine provinces in central Vietnam.
Some families have two children with bad hearts.
Many parents have to sell rice, furniture, cattle – and even mortgage their farmland and houses to support their children at the hospital for months before surgeries. But they are not able to afford to pay surgery fees, which cost 35 million to 45 million dong, (U.S. $1,666-2,143).
Parents did not know their children were suffering heart diseases until they got thin and weak, had blue-tinged skin, were short of breath and were then taken to hospitals for treatment. Most of them – farmers, salvage collectors or lottery ticket sellers – were too poor to have their pregnancies checked at hospitals and gave birth at local health centers.
Some of their relatives suffered heart diseases and died of heart problems.
Are you happy to work with child patients?
Yes. We pray for patients during their surgeries, then visit and offer them milk and money after surgeries. We try our best to bring joy, smiles and good health to the children through our ministry.
We are happy to see them gain weight, grow normally and go to school again, and especially to see their families be happy.
In return, they visit and give me flowers, cakes and pets on feasts and holidays.
What is one of the cases you remember most?
On a cold and rainy night in the winter of 2002, a relative of a girl aged 8 years old called me at midnight and asked me to pay for the patient’s heart surgery costing 45 million dong. The patient was very short of breath and required surgery immediately.
I had only 30 million dong in hand, and local banks were closed. A nun and I rode a motorbike 12 kilometers [nearly 7.5 miles] and through a cemetery to the hospital, and I felt a cold shiver of fear run through me while I was reciting prayers for souls.
We convinced the doctors to perform surgery on the girl and that I would pay the fees the following day. And they agreed.
The girl now is a college student in Da Nang city.
How is your working relationship with doctors at the hospital?
Doctors from the cardiology department treat me with respect and appreciate my work. They allow me to visit patients in the recovery room. We have good relationships with one another.
One doctor told me that she would work with me as a volunteer after she retires.
How did you start your ministry?
In 2000 Vietnamese Canadian Fr. Anthony Padua Tran Manh Tien, known as Fr. Tien Tran in English and a co-founder of Medical Aid Project – Medical Aid for Vietnam, visited and invited a local women’s congregation to work with his organization to serve children with bad hearts. But the congregation declined his offer because they lacked personnel.
Then Tien came and offered to work with us and we started our ministry in 2002.
I believe our ministry is sent by divine providence and God will save patients through our work.
[Joachim Pham is a correspondent for Global Sisters Report, based in Vietnam.]