Vietnam has changed a lot since Professor Fred Hollows first arrived here in 1992. In Hanoi, motor scooters have replaced pushbikes – and cars are now starting to compete with scooters that clog up the already crowded city streets.
Eight hours north of Hanoi, in a region near the Chinese border called Ha Giang, water buffaloes in rice paddy fields are shadowed by free roaming ducks. The air is clear, broken only by low lying mountain mist.
Beyond this is a weak bridge which we cross to get to a modest house with a thatched straw roof. Near the entrance to the home is a frail, elderly lady sitting on a tiny wooden chair. She stares blankly towards the noises she hears. This is Madam May. She’s 87-years-old and has been completely blind for over three years.
“Life has been tough”
May shares her home with four generations of family. Her two sons and their wives live in the same house, as well as two of her grandchildren and another two great grandchildren. She’s had eight children in total and now has 17 grandchildren and seven great grandchildren. She doesn’t remember when her husband died.
When she’s asked about her life, she says simply, “life has been tough.”
Madam May has seen three wars in her lifetime – the bloody Taiping Tianguo Rebellion in Southern China when her family fled China for Vietnam, then the French and finally the Vietnam War. When May is asked about those wars, she shrugs off the question as if they don’t compare to her day to day battles.
May did however have one close call during the war against the French. During a visit to a nearby town, she was captured by her own government and detained for 10 days. The Vietnamese government thought she was a spy for the French. When she was finally released, May had to walk back home through several villages with a Vietnamese flag tied to a pole on her back. She wasn’t a spy – but the government used her to make a point.
Losing her purpose
May’s life has been one of hard work and determination. But when she lost her sight, it was impossible for her to get around. When the weather is fine, she uses a six-foot stick to try to navigate terrain – but for the most part, her world has been restricted to a 20-metre radius around her home. Most of the time she needs assistance for the simplest of tasks like feeding herself, washing herself or even going to the bathroom. When it’s wet she can’t use her stick anymore and life is limited to a seat on the end of her bed.
I feel difficult and irritated. I even eat differently from other people.
- Madam May, cataract surgery recipient
The simple things matter
When an elderly relative is in the last years of their life, we’d do anything to make their life more comfortable. We bring them photos or cook their favourite foods. It’s the little things that make the difference.
May is surrounded by family, but she’s in the dark. If her sight is restored, it means that she can live out her final years with dignity. She can feed herself and go to the bathroom. She can see the faces of her boys and the generations she has helped borne. After so many years of battling, she aches for gentleness in her final years.
A doctor following in Fred’s footsteps
Dr. Vu Manh Ha is destined for great things. At just 36, he is the Vice Director of Ha Giang Hospital and has already gained a reputation for being one of the most skillful young eye surgeons in Vietnam. He’s arrived at the local provincial hospital to assist in an eye camp supported by The Fred Hollows Foundation. Madam May is one of many patients who has arrived for surgery. For Dr. Ha, treating patients in his home region is a very personal pursuit.
“I was born and grew up in this province, that’s why I have a special bond with it. After getting my master degree, I came back and worked here, where many poor people have blindness. Statistics show that around 4000-5000 patients become blind each year. My dream is to bring the eyesight back to as many people as possible.”
Statistics show that around 4000-5000 patients become blind each year.
- Dr Vu Manh Ha
There’s a little bit of Fred Hollows in Dr. Ha. “I always believe for each person, no matter if they are rich or poor, in high or low positions, have the right to see the world clearly.
They just want to see their children
Dr Ha knows the importance of giving Madam May her sight back. “I have operated for many old patients, perhaps over 90 and even 100 years old… All they want to see their children and family members right until the final minute of their lives.”
Madam May is Dr Ha’s third operation of the day, and after the medical sheets are placed on her, it’s only her eyes that are visible. She could be anyone. Dr Ha makes a small incision and begins to remove her dense cataract – first in one eye and then the other. He then inserts an artificial lens and, just like that, it’s done.
May opens her eyes while she’s still sitting on the operation table. “I see nurses!” she says. Her eye patches are applied immediately after and she is led out of the theatre to recover. We’ve seen many cases of sight restoration but this was an instant result. But, despite the incredible healing properties of the eye , she has to wait for her eyes to recover.
Impatiently, Madam May stays at the hospital until she can go home. She’s 87 but is quite at home as she’s scootered home by her son Lit. She eye drink in the scenes she’s forgotten, especially the buffalo and the bridge to her house.
Finally, she walks to the same spot in the house she's spent almost every day for the past four years – only this time she’s by herself. Before too long there are five great grandchildren on the bed with May, each competing for her attention. She watches the toddlers play and one loses his beanie. She walks over to place his beanie back on his head and returns back to the chair. Such a small action, but for Madam May, it’s pure bliss.