|Cleaning the blood: Patients undergo dialysis at Huu Nghi Hospital's Dialysis Department.
|Life sustaining: A nurse cleans a dialysis machine before use on a patient.
|Hands on: Dr. Tran Ngoc Lan treats a patient undergoing dialysis treatment.
|Comforting presence: Luong Thi Tu, from the northern province of Phu Tho, is one of many assistants, apart from medical workers, who help lonely patients. — VNS Photos Truong Vi
Despite Government employees having nine days off for Tet, staff of dialysis and haematology departments at city hospitals have to work through the break to keep patients alive. Ha Nguyen
All Vietnamese place importance on the traditional Tet (Lunar New Year) holiday because they have days off to get together with their families and relatives after a hard year of work.
But staff at the Dialysis Department at the Huu Nghi Hospital and Bach Mai Hospital's Haematology Department must keep working.
"We have never had a full Tet holiday since our department was founded 17 years ago because our patients, most of them elderly, have to undergo dialysis three times a week or they will die," said Huu Nghi (Friendship) nurse Nguyen Thi Lan Anh.
She said she would never forget something that happened last new year's eve.
"I was preparing things to worship my grandparents and my father, (the worship is very important for Vietnamese on the eve and early morning of the first day of the Lunar New Year)," Anh said.
"My boss called and said that our team had to be present at the hospital for an emergency rescue on a patient whose body was swollen with oedema (fluids were being retained) and could hardly breathe.
"We had to co-operate with doctors from the hospital's other departments to save the patient whose life could be lost at any time."
"Thank God, the patient was saved," Anh said. "We looked at the clock on the wall. The new year had already come. We were all tired but very happy. We stayed at the hospital to work on other dialysis patients."
She has thought of moving to another section but decided her life would only be significant if she continued to work in her present department.
"I know the patients need our help very much," she said.
Department head Dr Tran Ngoc Lan, an army veteran, said he was very busy treating every patient every day. He has rescued many patients who suffered from myocardial infarction or serious hypertension during Tet.
Nguyen Thi Tuyet, wife of a patient, said Dr Lan knew about the ailments of each patient.
"He gives us advice on how to make a suitable meal for a patient with kidney failure or how to take medicine.
"When my husband suffered a serious myocardial infarction, Dr Lan rushed to him in time and used all his strength to administer chest compressions while asking nurses to inject medicine.
"Thanks to Dr Lan and his team, my husband recovered," said Tuyet, adding that Dr Lan often visited his patients who had been rescued at the emergency room and encouraged patients and their relatives to overcome their hardships.
"We feel safe and our mind is at rest when Dr Lan is with us," Tuyet said.
Patient Ngo Nguyet Anh, 70, who has been with the department for 17 years, said under Dr Lan's leadership, all of his staff worked very hard. They stood together and, most importantly, they knew how to share hardship and sympathy with patients.
"They help us reduce our pain and live on," said Anh, adding that she had shared 17 Tet with Dr Lan and his staff at the hospital.
Patient To Minh Binh, 68, from the northern province of Quang Ninh, who has been with the department for seven years, endeavours to keep his patient mates in good spirits with his wisecracking jokes. He is also ready to lend his ward mates money in order for them to pay their hospital fees.
Binh, who has been in the hospital's Dialysis Department for more than seven years, said he lent VND6 million (US$285,307) to a patient from Bac Ninh Province to pay hospital bills.
"I thought I would never get the money back. She was very poor but after a few months she returned the money.
"Unfortunately she died recently," said Binh.
"We are still very lucky because we are taken care of by compassionate doctors and nurses.
"We all could die if we didn't get effective help from the doctors and nurses," he said, adding that if the department had more quality machines patients' quality of life would be improved.
The situation is similar in Bach Mai's Haematology Department in Ha Noi whose chief, Dr Nguyen Thi Lan, said she had never had a full Tet since she began working in the department more than 30 years ago.
"I always welcome the eve and first day of the Lunar New Year at the hospital. We often eat banh chung (square glutinous rice cake) with dua hanh (pickled onion) with patients to celebrate the occasion," said Lan.
Her husband at first didn't sympathise with her, she said. He told her that they would have to separate or divorce if she continued devoting herself to her patients.
"I talked with him again and again. Sometimes, I invited him to the department to witness the miserable circumstance and serious pain they have to suffer. My husband finally understood.
"Now, he often brings delicious foods and fruit for me to welcome Tet at the hospital," Dr Lan said.
She said she was very impressed by several of her patients, including Pham Van Khan, a 53-year-old from the central province of Thanh Hoa.
Khan is ecstatic at the thought of going home for Tet after being treated in the Haematology Department for leukaemia.
It is the third time Khan has been treated for the blood disease, which has prompted a grim warning from doctors that this may be his last Tet.
Despite the gravity of their illness, leukaemia patients like Khan find hope in the holiday season through mutual and family support. Khan was adamant that the disease wreaking havoc on his body would not affect his optimistic and sunny disposition.
"Despite warnings that I only have a month left, I am still hopeful I have enough time to build a temple for my ancestors," he said.
Dr Lan said Khan's optimism had rubbed off on some of the other patients in the hospital's leukaemia wing.
Khan's hospital mate, Lo Van Dung, 27, from the northwestern province of Lao Cai, who had been given just 10 days to live, said Khan's infectious good nature had given him strength to face his death.
"I don't know why I became sick; several of my friends from home in Lao Cai have already died from this disease. The only thing I wish for is that scientists and medical experts soon begin research on why so many people in rural areas have contracted cancer, particularly leukaemia, like me. We need solutions for rural people," said Dung.
He said he would help his parents and doctors to fight off the disease although the pain that engulfs his body all day and night is at times almost too much to bear.
Dung's 20sq.m cramped room, home to 24-36 patients, who sleep on 12 beds. They are generally all poor and face constant pain but find that by binding together to face a common enemy they have strength, where before only fear resided.
The Haematology Department receives more than 1,500 blood-related patients a year, said Dr Lan.
"We face a severe lack of staff and virtually none of us has time to take leave because patients come one after another, year round.
Many of the 150,000 patients diagnosed with cancer in the country die due to late detection of the disease, according to the Viet Nam Cancer Association.
The public health system is struggling to provide treatment for only 10 per cent of patients, said Nguyen Ba Duc, the association's deputy head.
Out of the 150,000 diagnosed it was estimated that about 5,000 patients a year were treated successfully, and the remainder died as they did not receive adequate treatment or were diagnosed too late.
The association is looking to fight the disease by organising early cancer diagnosis training course, for medical workers from provincial healthcare centres. — VNS