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Caring for the uncared for

Caring for the uncared for

Khanh Linh |

It&’s 11pm on Saturday night. When most of the houses have turned off their lights and darkness covers the city, Le Ha Phuong, a second-year student at Hanoi College of Medicine wears her first aid bag filled with medical supplies and free medicine and gets ready to visit special patients.

These patients are elderly homeless people, who can be found taking shelter in dark corners of the streets throughout the night. Phuong, together with dozens of volunteers from Am (Warmth) Volunteering Club, has been providing medical check-ups and supplies for the homeless free of charge since early January.

From 11pm every Saturday night, these young people have prepared food, blankets, and clothing. Sticky rice, bottles of water, packs of instant noodles and blankets are divided into different bags and are delivered to homeless people in the city.

Phuong and two other medical volunteers will talk to the homeless people, especially the elderly, about their health, and give medical aid and advice right there and then. The most common ailments among elderly homeless people are respiratory disease, high-blood pressure, diabetes and bone-related diseases. For these cases, the volunteers give medical advice on what should be done and what should be avoided, and medicine when needed. For the worst cases, the patients will be taken to hospital for necessary tests and treatment.

As she began to work on healing people, she realised there were people with bad wounds, unhealed ulcers and even undiagnosed cancers. “Homeless people are very self-conscious around strangers. They will never share their stories or their health problems if they don’t feel trust and security,” she said.

Phuong said it took her a while to earn the trust of homeless people. She began distributing bags of food and drink, and chatting with them for months until they felt safe enough to open up about their health problems. Homeless people have got to know each other very well, and trust each other. Getting the nod from the first person means getting the trust of the community, she said.

65-year-old Nguyen Thi Thu had no home. She worked as a scrap collector in the daytime and returned to her small corner on the pavement in Nguyen Dinh Chieu Street in Hanoi for her night&’s sleep.

Last year, Thu discovered a cancerous lump and was forced to have her left breast removed to stop the tumour from developing. However, due to prolonged physical exertion after surgery, combined with the dusty and dirty environment at garbage collection sites, the wound has quickly become infected, causing her significant pain.

“I could not stand up straight as I felt terribly painful whenever my shirt touches the wound. Although my back seemed to be paralysed at the end of the days, that feeling was much better than the pain of the wound,” she said.

Thu&’s uncomfortable gait immediately gained the attention of the group during their first visits with her. On getting her agreement, Phuong started cleaning the wound, changing medical dressings and supplying medicine for Thu every weekend. The woman has also been supplied with a mobile phone to keep in contact with the group whenever she needed medical advice and support.

Thu said the support of these young people has helped her pain to ease and reduced the cost of medical treatment. Due to the high cost of treatment, 250,000 dong (US$10.80) for a monthly check-up, she only goes to the hospital when the pain gets too much to bear. “I have no health insurance as I have no home. Thus, I have no financial support for my disease as other people do. That amount is quite a big sum for me,” she said.

Nguyen Van Quy, another homeless man, is in the same situation. Although suffering from deviation of the spine, the 69-year-old man whose old bike is his most valued possession, hardly goes to the hospital for treatment.  

Quy earns several tens of thousands of dong per day by inflating bike and motorbike tyres on the street, which is only enough for meagre meals.“Their care makes me feel warm, and the medicine helps me feel at ease. I can’t ask for more,” he said.

Vu Trung Anh, manager of Am (Warmth) Club, said a sad story about a middle-aged man dying on the street due to cold weather and illness last winter had encouraged him to do more for elderly homeless people. “That man usually got food and drink from our club, but never mentioned his illness,” Trung Anh said, “his death helped me truly understand that apart from basic resources like meals and blankets, they desperately need medical aid.”

Currently, there are about 35 homeless people in the city. His club has managed to reach 30 people. “Most struggle to live with their diseases and delay going to the hospital for timely medical intervention. Homeless people are usually in worse medical condition as they are largely left untreated,” he said.

After eight months of doing the job, Trung Anh said he was happy to see some positive changes in the patients. Now, he is trying to give long-term treatment to these people. He cited Thu as an example. The doctor required her to stop collecting scrap for a year to let the wound heal completely, but this turned out to be impossible as she could not find another job.

He is now thinking of a plan to find suitable jobs for these people while establishing a network of medical students and volunteers to treat the homeless regularly.

“It&’s not an easy task, but I believe we can do it. Bringing happiness to other people is to bring happiness for ourselves,” he said. 

Viet Nam News/ANN