In Don Village, which is well-known as the country of elephants in the Central Highlands, nearly everyone knows 75-year-old herb doctor Pham Duy, who has spent 27 years treating and saving over 500 people from death by poisonous snakes.
One morning during the dry season, Duy took us to visit Ae Duong in Nieng Village, where nearly 100 families of E De ethnic people live. Seeing Duy from afar, Ae Duong could not hide his happiness and deep gratitude: "Thanks to Duy, my life has been saved!"
Recalling the day he was bitten by a poisonous snake, Ae Duong still seemed frightened. "It has been four years already, but I'll never forget that day. After getting a little drunk, I saw a wrist-sized krait slithering into a stack of straw. I grabbed and pulled at its tail. Unexpectedly, the snake turned around and bit my arm. A few minutes later, I threw myself down to the ground, thinking I was going to die."
Duy continued the story: "Once a person is bitten by a poisonous snake, the venom disperses rapidly. When Ae Duong was brought to my house, his whole body had turned purple and convulsive while his head was aching as if he had been stabbed. Only after drinking my medicine for a week could he recover."
Ma Bu, Ae Duong's neighbour, also dropped by and thanked Duy for saving his wife, Mi Bu, from a snake when she was picking coffee. They also retold the story of how he saved Mi Um, who was close to death.
One afternoon, when Um was collecting wood in the garden, a cobra suddenly threw itself from the top of a tree and bit her forehead. After a short while, the venom had paralysed Um totally. Her face was deformed, her eyes bulged and her neck was swollen. Um was immediately rushed to Duy for treatment. After drinking his medicinal herbs for two days, she gradually regained consciousness and her face returned to normal.
Duy says the most difficult aspect of giving first aid to venom victims is that their heads cannot be bound with a tourniquet in order to prevent the blood from transporting venom throughout the body. In Um's case, if she had been treated several minutes later, her life would have been threatened.
Back in Duy's house, he showed me wads of thank-you letters from snake bite victims whom he saved from death. Each of the letters, Duy says, shows the happy ending of a challenge imposed on both the victim and the doctor. Delving deeper into his memories, Duy told us about several other serious cases he has seen.
Le Thi Mai, a poor woman in Hoa Khanh Commune, nearly lost her leg due to a snake bite. One day, when she was moving a water bucket, a cobra hidden underneath suddenly bit her big toe. Mai had to stay in the hospital for 15 days, but as soon as she got better, her leg started to suffer from gangrene and it was thought that it would have to be amputated - until she met Duy.
When the herb doctor used a needle to prick Mai's leg, it reacted by twitching - showing that the leg did not need to be cut off. Following Duy's prescription, Mai applied topical medicine to the wound in addition to drinking herbal remedies. After three days, her leg started to heal. Overflowing with happiness, Mai wanted to give Duy the gold she had saved but he refused, because "I have never accepted money or gifts from my patients".
Life saving pills
Born in Don Xa Commune in the northern province of Ha Nam, Pham Duy is now a member of the oriental medicine association of Don Village in the Central Highlands province of Dak Lak.
Duy used to work as a teacher of literature in the northern province of Hai Duong in the 1960s. Afterwards, because the salary was too scant to raise five children, Duy and his wife decided to move to Dak Lak to start a new life.
In the new resettlement land of bushy trees and wild animals, Duy had the opportunity to bring into play the skill of treating illnesses with the Vietnamese traditional medicine he inherited from his parents.
Six of his family members have worked as herb doctors. The remedy that he uses to treat snake bites is called Doat menh tan (life saving pill), which is considered a valuable family heirloom. "The name of the remedy means saving the life of those bitten by deadly snakes," Duy explains. "It is a combination of many herbs, selected from other traditional remedies and combined in a secret recipe passed from generation to generation."
According to Duy, among poisonous snakes, the krait is the most dangerous, but even krait victims' can be saved if they are treated in time. "The bite of a krait leaves no pain, blood or even swelling, but the victims lose their speech only two or three minutes after being bitten. Therefore, they have to be given prompt first aid."
Among hundreds of people saved by Duy, eight went through fire and water to reach him when they were bitten by cobras. Many victims in the north and south have also asked Duy for treatment.
Nguyen Thi Minh Lanh, deputy head of the local medical station, says: "In 1982, when I was assigned to work at the station, I learned that Duy had been treating villagers bitten by snakes. He has saved hundreds of cases that were refused by hospitals. There have been many people from other provinces treated and healed thanks to Duy's remedy."
The Doat menh tan remedy has been passed down to Duys' son and daughter so that they can continue saving victims of deadly snake bites. — VNS