For Better or Worse, Till Death Do Us Part

 We finally got the phone call we’d been anticipating for more than a year and a half. Dung’s wife Linh has been admitted to the General Hospital of Da Nang, having at last reconciled herself to the idea of having a tube surgically placed through the wall of her abdomen to prepare for a life-long regime of peritoneal dialysis in the hope that she will be able to continue to raise her two young sons and care for her husband Dung.

I met Dung and Linh in 2008 at a rehab facility near my home in Da Nang. There, amidst all the stroke and brain-injured patients, Dung was a rarity. He was entirely coherent and independently ambulatory. He had recently survived electrocution on a construction job and had only one major handicap, but it was a big one.

He had no arms.

We do have a shop in Da Nang that makes artificial limbs. It’s actually pretty darned good when it comes to making practical low-cost artificial legs--in large measure because of the work done here during the Vietnam/American War by the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker organization. Unfortunately, no one in Da Nang—or in Hanoi, for that matter—had the expertise or the components needed to make a functional arm for Dung.

Dung soon left the rehab hospital, realizing that no one there was in a position to help him, but we stayed in touch. For the next year, I sought an answer to Dung’s dilemma. Finally, the Limb Center of Wellington, New Zealand, came to Dung’s rescue. They not only donated the necessary components to compensate for the restricted range of motion in Dung’s left elbow (his right stump is too short to accommodate a functional prosthetic arm), but they also sent a technician, Malte, to help the local prosthetic technicians fabricate this unusual prosthesis.

During the following year, Steady Footsteps staff and volunteers worked with Dung to help him become as functionally independent as possible with his new arm. We had a three-wheeled trike designed and fabricated for him so that he could become more mobile. His cousin, who is a welder, designed a cup with a swivel grip made from bullet casings so that he could enjoy drinking coffee with the friends and neighbors who came to the little coffee shop that Dung and Linh opened in the front room of his parents’ house. (Dung’s own house had been demolished in an urban renewal project just before his accident and the compensation money they received was eaten up by medical costs after his accident.) As Dung regained the ability to feed, dress, and bathe himself, he began to pull out the deep depression that had enveloped him ever since his accident. Unfortunately, fate dealt this family yet another cruel blow.

While Dung was learning to operate his new arm, Linh finally sought medical treatment for the severe abdominal pain that she had been suffering. Not surprisingly, considering the stress she had been under, tests showed that she had a duodenal ulcer, for which she subsequently received treatment. The surprising news, however, was that tests inadvertently revealed that Linh had only one kidney. The devastating news was that that one kidney was failing.

Linh has been wrestling with that news and its implications for over a year. She’s been hospitalized numerous times since then for palliative treatment and each time the doctors advise her to have surgery and get started on regular dialysis, pointing out that, should she wait until her kidney fails completely, she may very well not survive the surgery. The surgery is more than Linh and Dung can afford, so Steady Footsteps is paying for it. The monthly cost of the dialysis regime is also beyond them and I don’t really see how, in good conscience, we could back away from helping them with that as well.

What do you think? Could you help us out with this project? Of all the adaptive devices that we could ever give Dung, what could we do that would ever replace Linh?