|For 19 months, Tuan has been collecting breast milk from other people to make sure he gives his baby the most valuable nutrition source. — Photo Courtesy of Trinh Tuan
by Thu Van
The baby began to cry just as the taxi started moving.
Trinh Tuan was at a loss. He had no previous experience of taking care of any baby, and here he was, alone with his 14-day-old baby daughter for the first time, going home from the Tu Du Hospital in HCM City.
He tried to remain calm. He checked her diaper. She had peed. Clumsily, he put her down on the car seat and changed it, hoping that would do the trick.
She was quiet for sometime. Then she started to cry again. Tuan felt like crying too. This time she appeared to be hungry. He didn't know what to do.
Tired after some loud wailing, the baby began to suck her own finger. Tuan felt like screaming out loud from the pain he felt.
His wife had died a week earlier, just 10 days after giving birth. She had begun to bleed suddenly, but the day it happened Tuan was out of town for a meeting and his phone was on silent mode. As soon as Tuan got back, doctors told him that she needed an operation to remove her uterus and stop the bleeding.
"I remember telling my baby that her mom's going to be ok and will be returning home soon," Tuan said.
After being taken into the operation theatre, his wife never regained consciousness.
To prepare for the funeral, Tuan had to send his baby to the childcare unit at the Tu Du Hospital. During the four days that it took, he visited her everyday.
"When I looked at my baby through the glass window of the childcare unit, I wanted to cry. Every time I left, I wanted to cry. My family and friends said I should leave her there for a while until I could recover from the shock," he said.
"I had promised my wife that I would always be a good father and stay beside my baby. But now that we were in different worlds, I was all alone, and I didn't know how to take care of a baby, I thought, does that make breaking a promise easier for me?"
It did not.
A week after the funeral, Tuan took his baby home, alone, in a taxi.
Un had been breastfed by her mother for the first 10 days. She was only given formula milk during the week she stayed in the hospital by herself. For three days after she was taken home, she could not relieve herself. Formula milk is always hard to digest.
"I decided that I have to try all means to give her breast milk. That's all I could do for her then," Tuan said.
"Someone once said: everyone has their own fight. My fight was to get breast milk for my baby."
Tuan, a member of the Viet Nam team that won the 2006 Asia-Pacific Robotics Competition, said he did not intend to lose the fight.
He asked for breast milk on online forums, on Facebook, and his friends' circles. Loving mothers answered the call.
For nineteen months, his neighbours have seen Tuan with his baby in the carrier, carrying a cooler to pick up frozen breast milk from those who were willing to give. Thanks to them, Un has grown up healthy.
There were times when Un refused to eat, and Tuan's mother said the baby needed formula. He had been fighting with her for quite sometime on this, but at one point he made a concession, partly because he was stressed out, and partly because he was worried about Un not gaining weight.
But the baby did not like formula very much. She often spit it out.
"I think my mom wanted to shift to formula for Un because she wanted to take the baby away from me to her home in Nghe An Province, so that I can concentrate on my work," Tuan said.
"But I can't let that happen to my baby. She has lost her mom. She has to stay with me."
Bringing up a child is never easy. It's even more difficult for a single dad. There are times when he feels really down, and desperately needs a woman's warmth in the family.
"Sometimes, it is all I can do from bursting out crying in front of Un. Then I would go and talk to my wife at the pagoda where my family has kept her ashes. But she's so far way. Can she hear me at all?"
"Sometimes I want to ask her why life is so cruel to me? Why do I have to stand such loneliness and suffering? My wife and I used to joke about who would be the one to die first – because the one alive would be the one to suffer more."
Privately, he had thought at those times that he would be the one to stay on and prevent his wife from suffering, but she'd actually said the same thing - that she'd rather suffer than have him suffer.
"She taught me how to love someone."
An idea strikes
With Tuan's initiative to procure breast milk proving a success, his fridge was sometimes overloaded with it. This gave him the idea of a breast milk bank for babies who lacked mother's milk.
Tuan had learnt about the true value of breast milk when he tried to find out whether breast milk from other mothers would be good or harmful to his baby, so he was now eager to help other babies benefit from this invaluable resource.
However, he found that the rate of mothers exclusively breastfeeding their babies for the first six months in Viet Nam was quite low – only about 20 per cent, compared to 60 and 70 per cent in China and Cambodia respectively.
"The pressure from work and from unscientific viewpoints has created a bad habit among many new Vietnamese mothers. They do not want to breastfeed their babies and give them just formula milk – that's not the best thing for babies," Tuan said.
He spent time translating a lot of information about the value of breast milk to share with new mothers and encourage them to breastfeed their babies. He also became a bridge connecting those who wanted breast milk for their babies and with those willing to give.
The Milk Bank, founded by Tuan in June, 2013, has attracted more than 6,000 members so far.
Doctor Nguyen Thi Hoa, former head of the Nutrition Department of HCM Pediatrics Hospital II, said the idea of a breast milk bank was wonderful.
After meeting Tuan at a conference on breast milk, Hoa said she was deeply touched by his story.
"His case is proof that breast-milk is the best for any baby," she said.
In March this year, the Viet Nam Milk Bank linked up with the global Human Milk for Human Babies.
But Tuan is not done.
He is determined to share pretty much everything he has learnt, and is learning, about taking care of a baby.
He is now working on a project called babyMe.vn, a technology solution for parents to manage the first 1,000 days of a baby.
The website will provide new moms and dads with useful information about how to take care of their babies, a mobile app called babyMe, a messaging system to remind parents of their babies' medical records and vaccination schedules. It will also include another website, Tramyte.vn, for medical staff, towards raising the quality of public health management of childcare.
"For those who are in the Information Technology field, start-up projects might have to do with entertainment, but the babyMe project is how I want to say thanks to this life," Tuan said.
"That's how I am going to teach my baby about following one's dream. I can't tell her to do it if I give up on my own dream. I might not have much money to give her, but I will try my best to teach her to follow her dreams when she grows up."
For Tuan, Un is not a burden. She is his biggest comfort.
"After my wife's death, I could have become a nomad. I could have retired to a pagoda. I could have become a man with mental problems, or something worse. But she has held me back. I am thankful.
"I still have my baby to love, to care for, to come back to." — VNS