LIFE GOES ON
My father returned to Australia with a heart filled with hatred after enduring the horrors of fighting in the Australian contingent of the Vietnam War. His job saved for those young and lean enough to fit into the enemy tunnels , was commonly known as a rat boy and the psychological terror of being the first down a dark and narrow hole to identify and disarm sources of danger has never left him. Not to mention the oozing cankerous sores on his back from Agent Orange exposure that still weep to this day.
Like so many soldiers , my father married almost instantly after his service and set to work on creating a family in the hope of carving out a new purpose .I was born 6 weeks prematurely with chronic asthma and lung problems and testicular cancer. My brother was born with failed kidneys which nearly killed him and hospitals were a common theme of both of our lives for the first few years. Perhaps because of the doctrine that was not confined to not just our house at the time, I knew from a very early age that I wanted to understand other cultures. In essence I think that is why I probably I became a documentary photographer .
When a friend of mine told me about a veterans hospital that was not commonly known of and located in her home village, I decided to spend some time there . It was an emotionally charged first step walking through the gates of a hospital where effectively the “other side” soldiers to my father were living injured and traumatised by the same war that shaped my father and impacted my brother and I directly and vicariously . I didn’t know what to expect. I was welcomed with open arms as if I was a family member.
105 people have died in the War Invalid Sanitarium Thuan Thanh centre since it opened after the war. There are currently 97 residents, 2 of whom are veterans from the French War. Tucked away in Bac Ninh province, infirm and able bodied veterans alike live out their lives in a humble existence. The unmistakable gaze of Ho Chi Minh presides over all , his portrait displayed in communal living areas and erected in pride of place in personal quarters.
I can remember it being a very hot day as I walked through the modest door to Mrs Nguyen Thi Nau ‘s unit. Behind her I could see her husband , Mr Nguyen Duc Dam ( 66) lying on a bed contorted in almost a fetal position . Moments later I was to hear the powerful story of undeniable love which has spanned more than 40 years . Working through an interpreter, Mrs Mrs Nguyen Thi Nau explains her life story as follows.
I knew my husband before the war ,we were very close from the moment we first saw each other in our village . My husband was a farmer . I met him in 1967 and soon after he left for the war as a freedom fighter. He was severely injured in 1970 – shot in the right top side of his head and was on the brink of death. The bullet created four pieces of shrapnel .Unfortunately the medical field team could only successfully remove one piece of the metal due to the location in the brain ,if they had attempted to remove any more he would have certainly died right there on the operating table in front for their eyes . When my husband did recover to the point he could return back to our village, I fell back in love with him immediately and knew it was my destiny to be by his side for the rest of our lives . We were married in 1973. At that point neither of us knew the pieces of bullet that remained lodged in his brain would move , worsening the condition as days , weeks months and years rolled into one .
When we first got married the only symptom was a slight drool plus constant headaches and the loss of the use of his right arm . Apart from that he was able to function normally. We had a few years when we thought we were so lucky and the injury would not progress as it has . We made the most of our lives having our first child the same year of our marriage and life could not have been any better. In total we have 3 children now all of who have liver problems and have had to deal with mind issues .
In 1981 we had a fourth child but unfortunately he has severe birth defects physically and mentally . My husband’s health was declining rapidly as well. ‘This was the hardest time of my life . I was trying to look after my husband and our child while making a living which proved to be an impossible task . Our son needed constant 24 hr care from the moment he was born and we had to live off donations of rice from our relatives .The harvests had been very poor that year making the simple task of eating almost impossible . In the end I had no choice but to admit my husband into hospital where he has reminded ever since . We lost our child shortly after. My heart still bleeds with sorrow daily. Without the government pension and this sanitarium , we couldn’t have survived .
I do find it very hard to live like this but I couldn’t be without my husband .I simply see it as my duty to look after him . When it gets hard I think to myself how many of the other women from my village lost their husbands for our struggle for independence and will never have the opportunity to touch their husbands and tell them how much they love them as I do daily . I don’t see myself as a hero I only see myself as a wife fulfilling her destiny and standing by my loved ones.
I then spoke with the director of medicine Dr Ngo Huy Pho, who has been working with the centre for four years. His comments are provided below.
I got involved with this facility for two reasons. Firstly, for the love for the veterans that have sacraficed their lives for the freedom of our country . Also, I had a relative who was killed in the war.
Agent orange has effected the brain , liver , eyes , and deformities of their children which we are still seeing in generations being born this way still.
Patients who are paralysed still feel pain because it is neurolgical mind recognition from the moment that they were injured.
I think that ladies who have stood by their husbands for more than 40 years shows us courage for the entire Vietnamese population to learn from .
As a doctor seeing what I see daily, I wish that the world can realise that we are one people and that war only leaves victims. We should always aim at peace and understanding while appreciating the difference that we have.
My final conversation was with Mr Nguyen Khac Du the hospital director.
The family can live with the seriously injured veteran so they can attend to the needs of their husbands .It is a situation where many women look after their husbands .We support the wives so that can continue to cope with their r husbands . We tell them about how their lives still have meaning … the new generations of our people can learn about the dedication the soldiers have for our freedom .
This comment caused me to reflect on the daily life of Mrs Nguyen Thi Nau .In my short stay I have observed her industriously toiling . When the sun peers through the small window and the local roosters defiantly announce the dawn a new day, the first duty is to bathe her husband and to clean the colonoscopy bag . She struggles to turn his body from one side to the other almost like a side of beef with every gesture being as gentle as possible with a tender touch that only a loved one can provide. Her husband’s bed sores are as large as fists. This process takes more than half an hour of sweat dripping gymnastics for Mrs. Nguyen and is facilitated at least twice per day .
After cleansing her husband, Mrs Nguyen performs her own ablutions before tending her three meter garden patch which yields occasional vegetables to help balance their diet of rice .
Mrs Nguyen often heads off to the markets which are located at the front gates of the hospital . The veterans who have mobility aided by the use of wheelchairs chat to the locals congregating at the markets. Like any other market, it is an opportunity to make small talk, exchange gossip, discuss current affairs, reminisce on times gone by , while buying produce. This is a tight community.
Mrs Nguyen heads back to her unit with essential supplies to prepare the four meals that she feeds to her husband. This is confronting to witness as Mr Nguyen is unable to communicate verbally and has no muscle movement whatsoever except for limited opening of the eyelids. The objective is to provide nutrients without choking which means that each meal takes nearly an hour . Mrs Nguyen provides nurturing hugs of reassurance throughout, while tears drip down her face .
At the end of the day Mrs Nguyen fits a mosquito net to the top of the bed and tucks Mr Nguyen in and for a moment I see utter peace come over both of their faces as she holds her husband until he falls asleep . The world quietens except the subtle background buzz of crickets and the tremendous love in the room is as thick as fog . I feel like an intruder while husband and wife send each other unspoken words of love telepathically.
As I slip away, I am struck by a portrait of a proud, young Mr Nguyen . It occurs to me that this is the freedom fighter that Mrs Nguyen fell in love with and still loves to this day . I leave with the overwhelming sense that there are likely to be hundreds of thousands of people in our global village quietly harnessing love to transcend space and time , possibly at this very minute. This story is a tribute to those brave enough to give love selflessly and to those who receive love appreciatively and allow themselves to trust another infinitely, despite experiencing atrocities of war.
The triumph of human spirit is indeed colourless and boundaryless .