Updated  
September, 07 2010 02:01:29

Villagers see the light on cornea donations

Eye to eye: Father Doan Minh Hai (left) talks with cornea donation pioneer Pham Van Su. — VNS Photo
by Tu Anh

About 30km away from the centre of Ninh Binh Province lies Con Thoi Commune, a beautiful rural area bathed in sunlight and light winds that ruffle between the leaves of vegetable plots during the summer. Church steeples built in an ancient and solemn architectural style alternate among gardens full of trees.

The beauty of the area is even more intense when one thinks about the kind hearted souls who live in the commune, particularly Nguyen Thi Hoa, who was the first woman in Viet Nam to donate her corneas to someone in need upon her death three years ago. Since then, many local villagers have followed her example to bring sight to people without.

Pham Van Su was the first person to encourage cornea donations after his sister-in-law, Nguyen Thi Khui, lost the sight in her left eye due to cornea degradation. Doctors said her cornea needed to be replaced but the hospital didn't have any available.

"The doctors advised us to ask for cornea donations from people who were about to die or who accepted their blindness," says Su. "At that time, cornea donations were a very strange thing in Viet Nam. There had not been any cases of cornea donations in the country."

At the same time, old age was leaving a local woman named Nguyen Thi Hoa more fragile by the day. She knew she was about to die. Su knew about her situation but talking to her and her family was a sensitive issue; he did not want to appear as a heartless man.

"I thought the matter over in my mind every day and I finally decided to meet with Hoa's oldest son, Mai Van Vinh. I invited him to my house but I was actually embarrassed and did not know how to begin the talk," says Su.

I finally said: "I do not know if what I am about to say to you is wrong. Helping people is a way of leaving behind goodness for our children in the future. When Hoa leaves this world to meet her ancestors, I ask her and your family to agree to donate her corneas to my sister-in-law. If your family agrees, doctors will transplant one of Hoa's corneas into my sister's left eye to restore her sight."

As he listened, Vinh looked at me as if he were looking at a person from another planet. He said: "Are you kidding me? My mother will die with her whole body, the same that she had when she lived. We can not remove a part of her body. Furthermore, it is unbelievable that dead eyes can help the living see. You are joking... "

Su met with Vinh many times to explain the situation. He even showed him documents from the National Eye Hospital about cornea transplants. Vinh eventually believed Su but he said he could not make the decision on his own. He needed to ask his mother.

Vinh says that after Su proposed the idea to his mother, she agreed immediately but the rest of his family did not. His family held many meetings but still failed to reach a decision because some people worried that if Hoa's corneas was taken out, her soul would not see the way back home after her death.

No one dared to mention the idea that people might start spreading rumours that the family was so poor they were willing to sell Hoa's eyes to get money for her burial.

Vinh says that he respected his mother's decision and at the final family meeting he said: "Our mother has agreed, we should follow her wishes. This is a good thing, we should do it." Vinh says he then wrote a contract to donate Hoa's corneas to Su's sister-in-law and the entire family added their signatures to the document.

The day Hoa passed away, a team of doctors went to Vinh's house to remove his mother's corneas. Vinh held Su's hands and cried, he said: "Poor me, people are saying that I'm selling my mother's corneas for money."

"Vinh was very worried that people would obstruct the doctors' operation. Luckily, everything went well and Khui became the first person in Viet Nam to benefit from a donated cornea."

Since then, Su has collaborated with the National Eye Hospital to solicit cornea donations.

The second cornea donation was easier than the first, says Su. This one was in Kim Son District, Con Thoi Province. One month after Hoa's donation, fifty-eight-year-old Nguyen Kim Hien, who was suffering from cancer, volunteered to donate her corneas after she died.

Hien's husband, Nguyen Van Huan says his wife didn't believe people would live a comfortable and happy life if they could not see. "She said that although her body was being damaged by cancer, her eyes were still good. She wanted to donate her eyes to people in need."

"I agreed with her intention and said: "Giving light to others is a charitable contribution. If you donate your corneas to others, God will give you other light. But the most important thing is that you should do what makes you happy," Huan recalls.

Huan says he and his wife wrote a commitment letter donating her corneas. This news was publicly announced over the commune's loudspeakers. Many relatives and local villagers showed up at their house to advise them against the donation. They wanted Hien to have her whole body when she died.

"However, my wife only smiled and told them "I will donate my corneas because it makes me happy."

Huan says he wavered between the two opinions. On the day his wife died, Huan says he remained at the doctor's side constantly to see what they would do with his wife's eyes. "I watched my youngest daughter cry incessantly while my house was packed with onlookers. When the doctors were about to remover her corneas, I nearly shouted "leave my wife in peace." Luckily, at that moment, Su was holding my shoulder and I kept quiet."

Although the surgery was performed three years ago, Doctor Cung Hong Son from the National Eye Hospital, who removed Hien's cornea, still clearly remembers the image of Hien's youngest daughter holding her mother's body and crying. Son says he worried that the daughter would make the surgery to fail, but fortunately it was a success.

"All the witnesses breathed a sigh of relief, especially Huan. He said "It turned out to be simple and as light as removing a boiled egg-membrane," recalls Son.

After witnessing the surgery, local people became more comfortable with the idea and the number of people who have donated their corneas has increased. Within three years, 38 people donated their corneas. Two or three members of some families have made donations upon their deaths. Hien's family is just one example. After her death, her mother also donated her corneas.

Vu Van Uoc's mother and mother-in-law both donated their corneas to others. Meanwhile, his father has already signed an agreement to donate his corneas when he passes away.

"My wife and I have prepared for this. We will donate our corneas because it makes us happy to know we will still be useful after we die," says Uoc.

Su has worked side by side with Father Doan Minh Hai to stir up the cornea donation movement in the locality.

Father Hai says after Hoa – the first donated cornea case – doctors visited him to talk about the meaning of the donations. The doctors asked him to help them persuade parishioners to donate corneas upon their deaths.

"I see it as a charity thing and it is suitable with Christian beliefs. I agreed to encourage parishioners to donate their corneas," says Father Hai.

"I never force or impose my parishioners to donate their corneas. I help them understand the meaning of the donation. When they understand, sometimes they volunteer."

While the country is facing many difficulties, including limited organ resources, the donation of corneas in Con Thoi Commune is seen as a noble thing. Those who have donated have given and received happiness. In their eyes, it is really the most precious gift that God and people have given to them. — VNS

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