by Tran Quynh Hoa
HA NOI — Worn out after almost a month's lack of sleep, Nguyen Hong Hai was enjoying his day off by resting on a stone bench in a small square at Huu Nghi (Friendship) Hospital. "I need to top up my energy sometimes, but only when feeling really exhausted," said the 45-year-old man whose "calling" is to help tend to, wash, and generally look after hospital patients.
|People who work as nursing assistants wait to be assigned tasks at Huu Nghi Hospital. — VNS Photo Truong Vi
Hai calls himself an "oshin", local slang for housemaid. He is one of the many hundreds of workers who fill the large gaps in the nursing profession in most Vietnamese hospitals. While his eyes are sunken, he manages to keep a smile on his face.
Hai's nine-year experience as a hospital helper has conditioned him to getting a few winks' sleep just about anywhere – even in the middle of a 39 Celsius degree summer day. There are another 50 or so frequent helpers at the hospital who he knows very well – and there are often dozens waiting for work.
"This is the only market for hospital helpers in town," said Hai, pointing to a crowd of about 20 men and women sitting on other benches and on the ground.
The father of three from Ha Hoang District in the northern province of Phu Tho, 100km west of Ha Noi, remembers his first days on the job. It was in 2003, when there was much less demand for hospital helpers. "There were only about 50 hospital helpers in the whole city then. Now the number must be in the hundreds," he said.
A shortage of nurses and better living standards for many city dwellers enable this informal profession to thrive, said Bui Minh Thu, head of nurses at Ha Noi's Bach Mai Hospital, a leading medical institution.
A report by the Viet Nam Nurses Association indicates that the nation's 90,000 nurses can only serve about a third of demand.
According to the Ministry of Health, to meet the national ratio of doctors to nurses of 1 to 3.5, hospitals nationwide would need an additional 60,000 nurses.
In a country where two or three sick adults have to share a single bed, Thu admitted it was impossible for nurses to take care of their patients without the help of relatives. "It's just a dream," she said.
As Viet Nam's health-care sector wonders how to solve hospital overcrowding and the shortage of medical workers, Hai and his fellow oshins fill the gap between supply and demand.
The country's income per head has increased dramatically from US$114 per year in 1994 to $1,300 last year, but the gap between urban and rural incomes is wider than ever.
In Ha Noi, the average resident has an annual income of nearly US$2,000, allowing many families to be able to hire helpers to take care of sick members.
"It would be great if we can take care of my father ourselves when he's in hospital, but we have to work during the day," said Pham Toan Thang, whose 80-year-old father is being treated for cancer at Huu Nghi Hospital.
Thang's father will have to remain in hospital for a long time, leaving him with no other choice than to depend on a paid helper to care for him, particularly during the night.
Hospital helpers usually earn VND250,000 (US$12) per day, and even VND300,000-400,000 ($14-19) if they are looking after patients with infectious diseases.
"It's a well-paid job," said Nguyen Thi Nu, from the northern province of Vinh Phuc. Joining other job seekers at Huu Nghi Hospital, she was looking for chances to double, or even triple what she could earn from her previous job as a housemaid.
Hai is also happy with his current income, which allows him to send his oldest child to study at a college in Ha Noi. "I even have some savings to send home to help my wife and two daughters," he said.
But everything has a cost and hospital helping is never easy. Hai knows he is exposed to many diseases that will probably shorten his life span.
He has actually witnessed some hospital helpers die from HIV/AIDS or acute respiratory symptoms they got from their patients. Hai always takes extra care when caring for people with contagious or dangerous diseases.
According to head nurse Thu, not many hospital helpers know enough about the rules of cross infection to fully protect themselves in such a dangerous environment.
Bach Mai Hospital once organised a free three-month course for helpers working at the hospital. Its staff taught them basic patient-care methods, such as how to change clothes for sick people, how to feed and clean them – plus the rules of hygiene. However, only one course was held because the helpers were not interested- or were too tired to attend.
Hai admitted that he dropped out from a similar course at Huu Nghi Hospital because he "already knew those techniques". He believes the nine years' experience he built up through hard work was enough. He is now one of the most-wanted helpers at the hospital. — VNS