When Tao showed up at the rehab hospital where I was volunteering last year, he told me that he fell down frequently because of weakness in his legs. From the doctors, I found out that Tao had an inoperable, but slow growing, spinal cord tumor in his neck. Upon examination, I determined that Tao’s legs were actually quite strong. His problem was that he could not feel them. That’s why he often tripped and fell and it was also why Tao was unable to travel by motorbike as nearly all of us do in Vietnam. Not only could Tao not control a standard motorbike, he was even afraid to ride on the back as he feared that his feet would slip off the pegs and get caught in the rear wheel.
With that insight into Tao’s situation, I worked with him on developing a safe and consistent gait pattern while cautioning him that he would always have to pay close attention to his feet, especially when walking on uneven surfaces. I also bought him a pair of shoes with clearly defined heels and had him practice keeping his feet on the pedals of a stationary bicycle. As a result, Tao was finally able to travel on the back of a motorbike with confidence and so was able to travel home on the weekends to be with his wife and three daughters.
Months later, I encountered Tao as he was vigorously pumping a hand-powered cart up a blazing hot, steep stretch of road in the countryside southwest of Da Nang. I cringed to watch him, covered in sweat and with veins bulging on his forehead, struggle up that hill. I knew that the spinal cord tumor in his neck not only blocked sensation to his legs, but it also caused unremitting pain in Tao’s right arm. Tao’s Herculean effort was surely exacerbating his arm pain. The sort of cart that Tao was using is actually rather brilliantly designed. It needs no fuel and moves as fast as a bicycle on level pavement. In fact, Steady Footsteps has purchased quite a few of them for impoverished disabled folks in the Nui Thanh district of Quang Nam province. Unfortunately, Tao lives in an exceptionally hilly area and was trying to eke out a living by selling newspapers and lottery tickets at various coffee and noodle shops in that hilly region. Things were not going well for him—he was racked by pain and he often did not even break even financially on his daily newspaper sales.
We followed Tao to his home that day and listened to him talk about his dream of having a little shop of his own. And we made that happen: Steady Footsteps not only supplied Tao with initial merchandise and start-up funds, we also provided him with a used three-wheel motor bike and lessons in how to drive it. Tao’s life is still no bed of roses—his arm still gives him fits and he’s nowhere close to middle-class—but he’s got the shop of his dreams and he’s able to provide for his family and that’s not bad.