Half a Lifetime

Earlier this May, during a surgery program at E Hospital in Hanoi, we welcomed a special case: Vi Van Tan, an ethnic Tay, from Muong Chieng, Da Bac, Hoa Binh—a highland commune located along the majestic Da River. Like the river of his homeland, Tan has his own story.

Born in 1981 with a facial deformity, Tan has never had surgical intervention until now. Although he visited local healthcare facilities many times, they lacked the necessary equipment for surgery, and Tan couldn’t afford to travel farther to seek treatment. Each visit filled him with hope, only for him to return home disappointed. After many such returns, he resigned himself to “just leaving it as it is,” though fortunately, “since school days, no one has ever bullied him; everyone loves him very much.”

Year after year, Tan worked the fields to support his family, accepting a life of labor with an unhealed lip. But deep inside, there was always something as turbulent as the Da River flowing within him.

He shared that two years ago, the commune’s committee informed him about a surgery program. However, no one followed up. He waited again. Last year, he received information from the committee again and hoped, but once more, there was no further contact. This year, the committee informed him once more, but this time, someone called, giving a clear time and place. He put aside all farm work, packed his bags, and for the first time, traveled to Hanoi with his wife.

When I met him at the hospital, he always wore a mask, removing it only when doctors asked him to for examination. After the check-up, he would immediately put the mask back on and chose to sit in a corner chair while waiting. I felt deep sympathy for him. I understand that there are feelings one can only hope to hide behind a fragile mask, even though he has accepted not hiding them for half his life.

Luckily, he was selected for surgery—after waiting 43 years. For the first time, he temporarily left his homeland’s river, village, and fields, and when he returns, he will have a different life, one where he won’t have to accept or hide anything. The Da River will be more beautiful then.

Vi Van Tan is one of 64 cases selected for safe and free surgery out of 80 cases examined and consulted at E Hospital in Hanoi during the program. The program is sponsored by athletes and organized by various groups through sports activities: Vinschool Gardenia, the “Run for Love” event initiated by Rua Runners, RaceJungle’s series, the Vietnam Ultra Trail community, Vietcombank Runners, Quang Binh Runners, and members of the Smile Runners community.

Story and images shared by Operation Smile Vietnam Development Officer – Tran Tien Lam.