Being Here Now

Last year, decades after dumping 20 million gallons of the toxic chemical Agent Orange all across the Vietnamese landscape, the US pledged to contribute $400,000 USD to partially fund a new study on the topic. What a relief! I’m sure that uncertainty regarding the outcome of this study is the only thing preventing the US from offering substantial assistance to people like May and Song, the articulate but impoverished parents of four disabled children, each conceived in the years following their father’s sojourn in an area which earlier had been heavily doused with Agent Orange.

Finally, almost forty years after another young man emerged from a defoliated jungle with a bizarre skin condition to father a son with strange, canoe-shaped feet before he, himself, succumbed to cancer, the US will know what should be done to make amends. Sixteen years after that man’s son produced a daughter of his own, afflicted with the same canoe-shaped feet, the wealthiest and most powerful nation in the world is finally getting down to the business of deciding whether or not it might have an obligation to help families like these. I have to wonder how the results of that million dollar study will ultimately benefit the generations of individuals and families afflicted with birth defects and early cancer deaths, who live in the poverty that still lingers following decades of US-imposed embargo, superimposed upon years and years of war. Will the proposed $14 million project to isolate a patch of dioxin-soaked ground at the Da Nang airport bring them any solace?

I’ve been tagging along recently with a group of American college students affiliated with the SUNY Brockport Vietnam Program as they make their Thursday morning home-visits to families of disabled children here in Da Nang. The students are studying to be social workers, so they do what they’ve been trained to do: they sit down with families and ask them questions. Then they listen.

Two weeks ago, we sat and listened to the diminutive mother of the canoe-footed girl tell us how sad she was that her daughter, a serious and dedicated student, could not attend high-school. The school, she said, was too far to walk to, and the mother was not able to balance her daughter safely on the back of her bicycle in order to take her there. (Her daughter’s canoe-shaped feet not only prevented her from walking without wooden crutches, but also made it impossible for her to pedal a bicycle herself.) A kind friend who lived next to the school, she said, had offered to let the daughter stay with her so that she could more easily attend school but, alas, that was impossible.

“Why is that?” asked a student.

“Because,” confided the mother, “my daughter cannot stand without her crutches and so cannot shower and attend to her ‘personal hygiene’ without my help.”

Being the only physical therapist in the room, it fell to me to suggest that, perhaps, the girl might sit down on a plastic chair when she showered and that, if a hole were cut in the seat of the chair, it might allow her to attend to her own hygiene when she used a typical “hole-in-the-floor” Vietnamese toilet.

The mother’s jaw dropped and the father beamed. As we departed, they each pumped my hand vigorously, smiling broadly. What had happened? Somebody sat down and listened to their story and made a simple suggestion. And, because of that, a sixteen-year old, third-generation victim of Agent Orange might go to high school.

We didn’t need a million dollar study. All it took was a few American college students and one middle-aged American PT, listening to one family’s story. Why is that so damned difficult? We didn’t even have to buy the plastic chair.