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Devil's Playground

Once again we find ourselves in the devil’s playground in Can Tho, Vietnam. I dubbed it the “Highway to Hell”in one of my posts last year. We meet Father Tuan once more, the man with a heart of gold. Since last year, a new facility is underway for the undesirable members of society – the mentally ill, the criminals, the homeless, and the people with HIV/AIDS. I was baffled to learn that there are no psychiatrists practicing in Vietnam. Hence, the differentiation between one mental disorder from another is not clearly understood in this country. Every person is “crazy” and is treated with the same first generation antipsychotics to control their symptoms, which often have unpleasant and serious side effects.

Father Martino (OBV) introduced us to Father Tuan, because of his admirable work. With minimal to no pay, he works with the “patients” every day. He treats their wounds, both physical and emotional, with a level of compassion that is beyond my recognition. With every sense of it all, Father Tuan is down to earth. He knows their names. He knows their stories. He shakes their sullied hands and welcomes every sloppy hug and kiss that is offered. He even shares the same unkempt and filthy rooms as the patients as the new building was in progress! In a facility of more than 500 men and women, I can see every set of eyes light up as he enters the premises. He is truly anangel for these desolate people.

Thuy spoke with one man from the facility who appeared to be quite lucid at first. He told Thuy he used to be a general in the military. After a seemingly normal conversation, he admits to Thuy that he is still working as a general and is doing undercover work in the facility. His grandiose ideas and disconnection from reality are very typical features of schizophrenia. I thought to myself that living in his own reality at this point can be considered a blessing.

Father Tuan told us of a man, burdened with psychosis, who is chained to a post in his family's backyard. He will bring him to this facility where the man can try to live a life with dignity and respect.

I still remember the unease I felt when I stepped foot inside the old facility that imprisoned these broken people. Treated like prisoners, these people are locked in cells 24 hours a day, only to be uncaged for meals twice a day. The sights, the sounds, and worst of all, the smell of waste and decaying bodies horrified me. The new facility under the direction of Father Tuan is much improved. It is clean. The shade of trees is forgiving to the smoldering heat. There is an atmosphere of calm and relaxation. The “patients” sit freely outside enjoying a cigarette and each other’s company.

I met a 19 year old boy named Minh. He was sweet, kind, and was somewhat insightful to his mental illness. However, he was also hopeful that when he was "cured", he would be able to go home to his family. In a way, I felt his anguish, as he will never be "cured". To add insult to injury, Minh and other patients at this facility are improperly treated with now obsolete antipsychotics. The sense of sorrow crushed me as I sat there listening to his confiding stories.

Father Tuan's honorable work also includes receiving aborted fetuses from local hospitals (at times even up to 8 months old..) back to his home to bless them and give them a proper burial. Otherwise, they are disposed as regular trash. Vietnam is second to China for having the highest abortion rate, with unwanted teen pregnancies as a leading reason. I have taken care of many patients who have had abortions before, but never have I had to stand above the fetuses’ graveyard. Now I am not one to discuss the morality of abortions, but I cannot deny that I felt heavy hearted as I stood above their resting ground. To see rows upon rows of unwanted pregnancies was rather nauseating to say the least. Father Tuan’s backyard is, however, a tranquil place with the calming whistle of the trees and cheerful birds. I closed by eyes, took a deep breath filled with angst and guilt, and prayed for their little souls to be at peace.

Our group also visited the same orphanage of Can Tho from last year. Not much has changed, except for more children. Unlike the OBV home (which we emphasize on the word "home" rather than "shelter") where our children are well behaved enforced by structure and discipline, the children of the orphanage run wild like animals. Our children of OBV are loved and are taught to love one another, which is apparent by their worry and care for one another. The children of the orphanage compete with each other for love and attention, and especially for food and treats! I understand that the employees here do the best they can with the (little) resources they have and I very much admire the work that they do. At the same time, I have come to cherish and respect OBV the more I experience places like this.

It is agonizing to grasp the bitter fact of unwanted pregnancies and of deserted children and adults, but at the same time, I am reassured by the selfless dedication of everyday heroes like Father Tuan and the ladies of the orphanage. They truly give me hope for a better future.

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