What Will Your Legacy Be?
With sweat building under the rim of my helmet, my toes baking beneath the sun’s 9:00am glare, and each breath a smorgasbord of motorcycle exhaust, it’s just another morning in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.
A month ago when I arrived in Ha Noi, each crash-defying ride on a motorcycle had me glued to my host, arms latched around her waist and pulse in a dead sprint. Now, as nonchalantly as a local (although I opt for SPF 45 instead of a floppy sun hat, long sleeved lion-print hoodie, evening gloves, and socks with my sandals), I lean into each turn. My fingers wrapped lightly around the plastic bar at the back of the seat, I’m relaxed, but still ready for a screeching stop or the jarring of a random pothole.
Twenty minutes pass before my new friend, To Oanh, a journalist with the Tuoi Tre Newspaper pulls into a narrow alley and cuts the engine. As I clamber off, two plastic red stools are pulled onto the cracked cement and a slim, middle-aged local man in faded rubber flip-flops gestures for me to sit (half squat) as he mixes ice, coffee, and milk powder into a glass. For a moment, I think about the rule of avoiding ice in a developing country, but I don’t have the heart to refuse. You see – this isn’t just ANY open-air alley “coffee shop”. For 16 years, this little stall provided a living for a family of 4, including one of Ho Chi Minh’s most inspiring citizens.
The sweet, silky iced coffee slides down my throat; the perfect antidote to the heat and the dust, and within seconds, I place my empty glass on a tray balanced precariously on a couple of flats of Pepsi and Orange Crush. Our host signals for us to follow him 20M down the alley to a home barely wider than the RVs that flood the roads in Palm Springs, CA and Scottsdale, AZ at this time of year
As soon as I slip out of my shoes and up the two worn steps, the sunflowers, photographs, and messages covering the walls overwhelm me. A picture of a young girl with a radiant grin sits in a place of honour on a narrow glass covered table. Ms. Oanh lights two sticks of incense and hands one to me. For what feels like the hundredth time since I arrived in Vietnam, I force myself to swallow my tears. We each say our own silent prayer of gratitude for all this angel managed to accomplish in her short life.
Le Thanh Thuy, nicknamed “sunflower” because of her grace (through more adversity than most of us could imagine as she endured three separate surgeries to amputate her leg and part of her hip) and her desire to bring joy to the other children on the pediactric oncology ward at HCM City’s Cancer Hospital, passed away on November 2, 2007. Thuy (pronounced Twee) died of bone cancer, just shy of her 20th birthday, and just after the “Thuy’s Dream” program was created in her honour. Before she became bed ridden, Thuy (missing one leg and navigating the hallways of the hospital on crutches) organized toy drives, helped fundraise for patients whose parents couldn’t afford to pay for treatment, and inspired thousands of people through the writings on her blog.
I can’t believe I am standing here, in front of a shrine to such an amazing young woman. It feels like much longer than a week since I met Ms. Oanh and even with her limited English and my non-existent Vietnamese, she was able to convey to me how much Thuy and her dream has meant to her personally. The two originally met because of a story Ms. Oanh wrote for the newspaper about this fiery young woman with a dream to help other cancer patients. But, they ended up forming a close friendship and Thuy often referred to Ms. Oanh as her “sister”. During the final days of Thuy’s life, Ms. Oanh spent many hours by Thuy’s bedside and she still tries to visit Thuy’s family once every week or two.
As a fulfillment of Thuy’s dream to help other children with cancer, Ms. Oanh spearheaded the creation of “Thuy’s Dream” which now provides weekly activities and lessons in a beautifully decorated room (and often the only haven from the dirty and overcrowded wing of the hospital) to children undergoing treatment for cancer. Thuy’s Dream also has monthly birthday celebrations for the children, an Annual Sunflower Festival, a Blood Bank for pediactric cancer patients, gift giving and special holiday activities for the kids, and aid to the patients whose families are struggling financially. As soon as I met Oanh, she asked me if I would like to come volunteer with the children. As you can probably guess, it took me about 5 seconds to Crash Into Love.
My afternoons spent colouring and making bead art projects with a group of beautiful little cancer patients is such a minuscule contribution; especially in a country with huge challenges like over-crowded hospitals, diagnoses that happenway too late, and the unthinkable travesty of children suffering from metastatic cancer with no access to morphine. But, as I have learned time and time again, sometimes in life it’s about Doing What You Can, While You Can.
I will never forget the warmth of her chubby, steroid filled body pressed up against my arm as we sat and coloured together. Even though we couldn’t communicate with words, she would point to each crayon and dictate which colour she wanted me to use for each section of the intricate butterfly drawing. Even if only for a few moments, she knew that she MATTERED. I wish I could have done so much more, but I will always be grateful for the opportunity to be 100% present with her and grateful to the many University and High School Students who volunteer with the program every week. As a cancer survivor, I was on the receiving end of incredible kindness and I know what a huge difference it can make to have someone sit with you and just be present with you through both the light and dark moments.
I will leave you with a wonderful quote from the book that To Oanh gave me about Thuy’s life (and her lasting legacy) as well as some photos from my time at the Ho Chi Minh City cancer hospital.
Here is an excerpt from an interview in the “Tuoi Tre newspaper conducted on July 29, 2007 (3 months before Thuy passed away).
Question - With each additional day like a small victory, what have you learned about the value of life?
“I have learned that I should do what I want immediately, when the opportunity arises. No one knows what surprises the future might bring, but this is also what’s so interesting about life. When I look back into my past, I smile to myself, because I know I have lived my life the way I wanted to live it for myself and for the people I care about. By following this philosophy,complicated matters have become simple and impossible ones have become possible…
AND – Here is a greeting that was written by one of Thuy’s friends:
May you have:
- Enough HAPPINESS to keep your soul sweet
- Enough CHALLENGES to keep you strong
- Enough WORRIES to make you human
- Enough HOPE to make you happy
- Enough FAILURES to make you humble
- Enough SUCCESS to make you enthusiastic
- Enough FRIENDS to make you feel supported
- Enough POSSESSIONS to meet your needs
- Enough ENTHUSIASM to make you wait in joyfulness
- Enough FAITH to remove all disappointment when you are down
Please contact me if you would like to make a contribution to the “Thuy’s Dream” program or if you would like to order a copy of the book. I would be happy to provide you with the banking information and To Oanh’s email address. If you can’t contribute financially, maybe you could think about finding a way to be present for someone else in some way, shape, or form (no matter how small the gesture might seem to you).
From the limited time I spent in Thuy’s home with her incredibly gracious parents, I think their wish would be for Thuy’s story to inspire you to make a difference in the life of someone who needs your support.
I know I will carry Thuy’s story with me and continue to be inspired by the difference ONE person can make…
These photos speak for themselves in terms of the conditions of the hospital and the resilience of the beautiful children I met while here in Vietnam…