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Magical hands bring health studies to life

Update: March, 05/2013 - 07:00

Kovalevskaya award winner Bach Khanh Hoa works with her colleague in a laboratory. She has spent over 30 years devoted to blood transfusion and hematology. — Photo Courtesy of Bach Khanh Hoa

by Nguyen Thu Hien

HA NOI (VNS) — Immaculately dressed in a blue velvet suit and with her long black hair tied back neatly in a bun, Bach Khanh Hoa reservedly walks up to the stage and shyly acknowledges the salvo of applause from her admiring colleagues and friends.

Already aged 58, the associate professor of the National Institute of Hematology and Blood Transfusion still looks a little uneasy, even when receiving the prestigious Kovalevskaya award – an honour reserved especially for exceptional female Vietnamese scientists – in recognition of her 30-year devotion to the blood transfusion and hematology field.

Watching from the back of the stage, her acquaintances whisper that her graceful but slightly awkward appearance in the face of so much attention is a far cry from her everyday manner as an attentive, calming and patient doctor completely in control as she attends to her work, which she has been undertaking with passion and skill for 30 years. Her routine revolves around conducting her scientific studies, making notes and presenting her findings to a board of department directors. Watching her on stage, you rather suspect she would be happier back in her lab collecting blood samples than here collecting an award.

Breaking new ground

Hoa graduated from university in 1978 just after the war came to an end. Many soldiers returning from the battle fields in southern provinces were unable to have children and many newborn babies remained in hospitals due to their deformities.

"Their pain gradually became absorbed in my heart. I was prepared to do anything to lessen it," she recalls. "When some experienced doctors conducted the country's first study on dioxin and inborn deformities one year later, I, as the only freshly-graduated doctor immediately requested to be involved.

"They arrived in Da Nang where dioxin was sprayed during the war to collect blood samples from people exposed to the chemical. There was no electricity and no appropriate tools, but everything was done in a really careful and well-prepared way to ensure the quality of the results."

These served a crucial foundation to the many studies that followed. Despite her desire to continue with this work, Hoa instead had to return to her previous duties.

"I was swept away by routines of testing and analysing blood samples in order to diagnose popular diseases."

In 2001, Hoa finally began to work again on the effects of dioxin. She officially joined a five-year study on how it creates changes in hereditary, hematology and immunisation. "It was really a second chance."

Associate Professor Nguyen Van Tuong, a participant in the study, says that she spent all day collecting blood samples and all night separating serum from blood cells to ensure the highest quality of tests.

"The study really challenged our patience. However, Hoa's passion for finding out results seemed to be endless."

Thousands of blood samples taken in affected areas such as Bien Hoa, Da Nang, Thua Thien-Hue, Hai Phong and Ha Noi were analysed extensively. The research led to breakthroughs, including the discovery that there was a higher rate in chromosome disorder, leukocyte form disorder and sudden gene changes among people exposed to Dioxin in comparison with people who were not exposed.

These findings were used to support the five million people believed to be victims of the dioxin. They also allowed scientists to detect defects in newly born babies more quickly, according to Tuong.

As well as her vital work on dioxin, Hoa always challenged herself by researching unexplored issues related to hematology and the safety of blood transfusion procedures, says Associate Professor Pham Quang Vinh, head of Bach Mai Hospital's Blood Transfusion and Hematology Department, and a colleague of Hoa's for 20 years.

He praises her dedication and her willingness to argue against the received scientific wisdom if she believes it to be wrong. She once put forward new research about a human leukocyte antigen (HLA) and its application in transfusions despite doubts held by her peers and colleagues. She was later proved right.

Hoa explains that HLA typing is a testing process that is used to match patients and donors for cord blood or bone marrow transplants. It is done to reduce the risk of the transplanted stem cell being attacked by the immune system of the recipient.

However, viscera transplant surgeries were beyond the dreams of the country when she first proposed the measure, so no one thought HLA typing would be useful, she says.

"Despite the opposition, I kept my belief in what I was doing."

Although she was unable to further test her theory about HLA in the country at that time, she luckily had the opportunity to be trained in France for one year, which she took as a chance to conduct her study. She went to many places in search of blood samples from Vietnamese people living in France for her tests.

 

Prestigious prize

The Kovalevskaya Prize is named after Sophia Kovalevskaia, a 19th Century Russian professor of mathematics. The award was first established in 1985 and was sponsored financially by Ann and Neal Koblitz. Its candidates are Vietnamese female scientists mostly working in natural sciences.

For the last 28 years, 39 individuals and 17 groups of female scientists have been awarded the accolade. — VNS

Vinh remarks that despite the workload being enormous, Hoa did it all on her own.

"She is different from others in our profession who entrust their assistants to clean tubes or prepare other equipment. She is involved at every stage, as she believes that all of these elements play an important role in providing her studies with accurate results."

Hoa insists that thoroughness is essential, and she will never allow her work to fall beneath the high standards she sets herself. "It is no good making errors in health studies and then making apologies later. Any mistake, no matter how small, can take a patient's life. Apologies are no good then."

When Viet Nam's first viscera transplant surgery was carried out in 1992, one year after Hoa finished her studies abroad, she was filled with excitement. "All of my happiness seemed to burst out. My study on HLA typing techniques would be applied much sooner than expected."

Hoa, as the youngest doctor in the surgery took responsibility for ensuring the match between the donor and the patient was a good one.

Vinh says that even today, when transplant techniques have advanced to meet the levels set by other countries and hundreds of transplant surgeries have successfully been conducted, Hoa's research on HLA remains a cornerstone in the field and facilitated the swift application of modern technologies and treatments.

"My passion was transplanted unconsciously into my heart by my father," she said with a smile after her awards ceremony. "While I have never interacted directly with patients, I can feel their pain through examining their blood samples". — VNS

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