Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Born survivor: Vietnam

Born survivor: Vietnam

Abandoned at birth in Central Vietnam and mauled by a dog, a baby boy suffered devastating injuries. Elka Ray discovers how the kindness of strangers is helping to turn this child’s life around.

Dressed in a yellow t-shirt and orange trousers, Ho Thien Nhan stands staring at his sneakers, a worried look on his face. Aged 20 months, the boy, who lives in Vietnam’s capital, Hanoi, is being coaxed to take his first steps, and it’s clear that he’s petrified. Thien Nhan’s adoptive mom of three weeks, Tran Mai Anh, 35, rolls up his right pant leg to reveal a prosthetic leg. “Does it hurt?” she asks him. He shakes his head no and shuffles forward.

Born on July 15th, 2006 in Tam Thanh Commune, Nui Thanh District, a hilly region in Central Vietnam, Thien Nhan was abandoned shortly after birth and mauled by a dog, resulting in severe injuries to his right leg and groin. On July 16th a villager found the blood-soaked baby in a field and carried him by motorbike down a rough dirt road to the nearest hospital, which lies some two-and-a-half hours’ away in Danang.

While doctors managed to save the infant’s life he lost his right leg from the upper thigh, both testicles and his penis, then spent two months in the hospital recovering. When the police identified the boy’s 20-year-old birth mother her family was forced to take him, the baby—christened Thien Nhan by local monks—sent to live in the mud-floored shack that stands in the field where he’d suffered the dog attack.

With his birth mother working in the city Thien Nhan was left in the care of her parents, who saw the maimed child as a burden. Although Thien Nhan’s family was receiving regular donations of infant formula, cash and clothing, a number of locals felt that the boy’s care was inadequate and alerted local authorities.

In December 2007 Mai Anh, who works as a journalist, accompanied two friends to Nui Thanh in order to take the baby to see a doctor. Family Medical, a clinic in Danang, had offered to give Thien Nhan a free-of-charge checkup. Nearing Nui Thanh District flat paddies give way to wooded hills, the houses that line the road growing smaller and poorer, two- and three-storey cement buildings giving way to single-storey cement dwellings and finally to rough wooden shacks like Thien Nhan’s. Lying about 100km from Danang, Tam Thanh Commune is so remote that it only recently received electricity and is inaccessible by car.

The doctor’s report was alarming. Thien Nhan, then 16 months, was malnourished, anemic and shorter than 99 percent of babies his age. His small, exposed penile opening was prone to obstruction and infection, and he had diarrhea. Even worse, without immediate access to prosthetic care, the doctor warned, Thien
Nhan’s good leg would become irreversibly damaged and his body twisted.

“At first I did not plan to adopt him, but then I thought of him up in the mountains, his good leg becoming more damaged and I couldn’t sleep,” recalls Mai Anh. Shortly thereafter, she and her husband, Nghin, also a journalist, decided to adopt Thien Nhan. The couple already had two sons, aged seven and three. “I imagined Thien Nhan being cold and dirty, growing up like that, become older and having a twisted body, nobody knowing or caring about him. I knew we had to help him as soon as possible,” says Mai Anh.

On March 14th 2007, the adoption finalized, Mai Anh and Nghin traveled to Nui Thanh to retrieve Thien Nhan. “At first he was like a wild animal, very scared and aggressive, hitting and biting my younger son. He had no idea how to play with toys. But we could see that he’s very sensitive and knew that if we loved him he’d love us back.”

After receiving extensive medical tests, performed free of charge by the Hanoi French Hospital, and medicine to treat a chest infection and diarrhea, Thien Nhan came to the Vietnamese Training Centre for Orthopaedic Technologists, the GTZ-funded institution that is sponsoring his prosthetic care. There, doctors and technicians devoted more than a week to fine-tuning Thien Nhan’s first prosthetic leg, which, due to his rapid growth, will need replacing in about two months’ time.

“At the start he was terrified to go to the hospital,” recalls Mai Anh. “But now he knows that after we go to the doctor we’ll come home again. He’s happy and eats a lot, and is learning polite behavior. He’s totally different from when we first got him.”

Thien Nhan’s walking lesson over, Mai Anh bends to remove his prosthetic leg, which due to the short length of his remaining stump, requires a harness that secures around his torso. Glad to be free the boy crawls over to his new big brother, Minh, and climbs into his lap. Minutes later Thien Nhan hoists himself onto a tricycle and starts rolling around the room, pushing himself along with one leg. His weight is imbalanced and, inevitably, he rolls off, his cheeky, brave little face contorted with laughter.

Asked what’s next for Thien Nhan, Mai Anh looks worried. “Right now I’m too busy to think too much about the future,” she says. “But he’ll need one surgery soon to repair his urethra, then more surgeries to rebuild his penis and also synthetic hormones.” She hopes to find sponsors for his medical care, and to be able to provide him with a good education. “That Thien Nhan survived is a miracle,” she says. “In Vietnamese, his name means ‘Person Who Seeks To Do Good’. I believe that he survived for a reason.”

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