Going Home for Tet

As the Lunar New Year countdown reaches its final week, everybody in Vietnam is heading home for the holidays. Northbound buses, trains and flights out of Ho Chi Minh City are completely booked as students, factory workers and businessmen alike stream homeward. Tet in Vietnam is like Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s and Easter in America -- all wrapped up into one joyous celebration. And being home, with family, is the key element in this week-long event. There is no point in trying to embark on any business arrangement or to discuss any matter of importance these days because everything will be dealt with “after Tet”.

In America, hospital workers are accustomed to seeing empty beds around the Christmas holidays as doctors and patients alike do not “elect” to do elective surgery then. Likewise, patients and hospital staff often push towards getting the patient “home for the holidays”. That’s true in Vietnam, only more so. The rehabilitation hospital where I volunteer in Da Nang will be virtually closed over the week of Tet. Everyone who can physically get out the door has gone. The only two patients who remain on the “serious” ward are a young woman whose pelvis was crushed in a motor vehicle accident and a brain-injured girl whose family lives on a remote island in the South China Sea. Everybody else went home, including a quadriplegic riding sandwiched between two family members on a motorbike.

But the joy of the holidays and imminent family reunions was muted last week on the “serious” ward. This ward houses those with the most recent and severe brain-injuries.

Over the course of several months, the population of that ten-bed ward had evolved: as patients improved, either through therapy or the natural healing process, they moved to beds in smaller rooms where they stayed as they continued to work on re-establishing control over their bodies, or else they went home as family members either ran out of money or decided that they could continue therapy as an out-patient. Two patients, however, remained continuously on that “serious” ward—never waking up sufficiently to actively participate in therapy or even to sit unsupported in a chair. Their eyes opened, they swallowed food, and occasionally moved their limbs for no discernable purpose. As the other patients were learning to stand up and walk with assistance and saying their first few words, the mother of the tall, thin high-school student and the wife of the 29 year-old father of three worked diligently on feeding and bathing and passive exercises. As new patients transferred in, the young wife and the middle-aged mother taught the new families how to survive in this hospital setting. (Hospitals here in Vietnam are a family affair because it is the responsibility of the family to feed and care for their loved one while he or she is hospitalized.)

Other patients moved on, but those two young men remained in those beds. Yet, as long as they remained in the hospital, in the company of other head-injured patients and their families, the young wife and the middle-aged mother could cling to some nebulous hope of recovery, despite the increasingly obvious fact that things were not looking good.

Then came Tet. One morning I arrived at the ward to find the mother weeping silently as she bent over her son – stretching, stretching his ankle as I had taught her to do some months earlier in order to avoid muscle contractures that could prevent him from standing, flat on his feet. Her husband, the boy’s father, who had always been ready to lend a hand to anyone else on the ward, was hurriedly packing up the last of their belongings in preparation for the long trip home. The young wife of the other severely disabled man stood watching, with a tremulous smile on her face. She, too, was going home with her husband that day. Home at last, to be with their three young children and her “good neighbors” – and the husband who would never walk or work or talk to her again. Home at last, after months of “intensive caring” to the new normal—a life without hope.

Maybe that’s too harsh. How can we live without hope? Certainly these women, like many Americans nowadays, realize that the futures that they once dreamed of and worked towards have been dashed. The mother will not see her son enter university. He will not have children of his own and he will not be an aid and comfort to her in her old age. The young wife will care for her three young children and, now, one very large, eternal infant with no help from a loving spouse. How she will earn a living, I can’t begin to imagine.

But their epic struggle to reverse this catastrophic change in their lives has ended. What has happened cannot be undone. Yet they endure. And when they return home this Tet, they will be enfolded and supported by their families and their communities.

That is their only hope.

As it is ours.