by Tran Hoa
|Han visits a household in the commune and gives advice on treating disease by using medicine instead of the superstitious practices they were forced to rely on in the past.
|Ngon leaves, which is a highly toxic drug sometimes used by distressed locals to take their own lives. It is referred to as a demon by villagers. — VNS Photos Tran Hoa
|Don't worry: Tran Dinh Han gives a health check to a boy in Pa Vay Su Commune. The friendship and love between the army doctor and local residents makes him feel like a part of their families. — VNS Photos Tran Hoa
Pa Vay Su Commune, in the mountainous northern province of Lai Chau's Phong Tho District, is sunk in mist year-round. At midday, people cannot see each other clearly, even if they stand only 5m from each other. But army medical corps lieutenant Nguyen Dinh Han determined to settle down in the highlands to treat diseases and save local residents from some rare ailments.
For a long time, together with Suoi To Commune in the mountainous province of Son La, Pa Vay Su Commune has reported many painful deaths caused by ngon leaf - a very poisonous plant that grows widely in the area.
Local residents often compare their village to a vale of ngon ghosts, as there are more poisonous leaves here than vegetables. The deadly leaves grow all around the maize terraces and even over schools.
People living in Pa Vay Su Commune often warn visitors not to sample any leaves growing along local roads. Numerous local residents have died after eating the leaves. In their minds, the plant is not just toxic, it represents the devil.
Colonel Ngo Van Dang, head of the Economy and National Defence Association 356 located in the commune, has been concerned about the issue for a long time. Due to their low levels of education and fear of the complications of modern life, local residents often use ngon leaves as a means of suicide. If they have any sorrows in life, they immediately think about ending them with the poisonous leaves.
Local authorities keep a list of deaths caused by the plant, many of which some created enormous stirrings in the border commune. All the deaths were felt keenly by families and villages.
Since 2008, more than 20 local people are reported to have deliberately eaten the leaves to kill themselves. Some were lovers who could not be together forever. By the time they were discovered by local residents, their bodies had disintegrated.
On September 10, 2009, Sung A Lu, who lived in Hang E Village, ate the leaves because of a domestic conflict. He wanted to use the threat of death to frighten his wife. However, he died painfully as his family watched.
All seven villages in the Pa Vay Su Commune have reported numerous deaths caused by then leaves, according to the commune's People's Committee. In the commune medical station garden, ngon leaves grow thicker than medicinal leaves.
Lt Han is much respected by local residents, as he has saved many from death.
Dr Han was born and grew up in Ha Noi. In 2004 he passed the entrance exam to the Viet Nam Military Medical University's general practitioner faculty.
Han graduated from the university in 2007 and took a job in an army hospital. His relatives and friends hoped that he would be promoted in Ha Noi, but when the Economy and National Defence Association 356 was founded in 2008, he decided to leave Ha Noi and move to a mountainous area to work.
Anyone who has come to Pa Vay Su Commune is familiar with how hard, difficult and lonely life can be there. The commune is full of rocks, mist, ngon leaves and other dangers. People have to walk for dozens of kilometres just to visit one or two houses in the mist.
Even if villagers had a lot of money, there is little to buy because there are almost no shops or stores.
"When I had arrived here, I was very sad and lonely, but then work helped me overcome my despair," said Han.
Moreover, the friendhsip and love between the soldier and local residents helped him develop a familial connection to them.
At present Han is the head of the Pa Vay Su policlinic. The station's 12 members must cover a large area. Sometimes they travel hundreds of kilometres by horse to cure residents.
Another difficulty in treating local people is that they often think that diseases are caused by ghosts.
"It is a traditional for residents here to avoid going to medical stations when they feel ill. Instead, they often prefer to worship the ghosts instead to make the ailments go away," said Han.
Understanding this habit, Dr Han and his colleagues started cooperating with village heads. If a resident falls ill, doctors will come to his/her house immediately to help them "catch the ghosts" and treat their diseases.
Gradually, Han showed residents that diseases were not caused by ghosts, and ghosts also cannot treat diseases. Diseases must be cured by modern medicine.
If there is any job that causes more difficulties for Han and his colleagues than catching ghosts, it is carrying out deliveries for pregnant women.
Mong ethnic minority men often do not want strange men to carry out deliveries for their wives, and medical workers are forced to wait until the pregnant woman has haemorrhaged for her relatives to let them treat her.
Some residents do come to the medical station to give birth, but flee immediately after the delivery because they want to follow the tradition of lying next to the cooking fire after giving birth, said Dr Han.
Since living in Pa Vay Su Commune, Han has also cured many people who ate ngon leaves.
He observed that after helping the victim vomit the leaves, medical workers should use activated carbon to absorb the poison.
Sometimes Han has had to use 15 litres of water to clear the victims' bowels, he said. — VNS