|Waiting for handouts: Patients' families wait for gifts which are provided as a special New Year service by SympaMeals .Year 2010 marked SympaMeals' expansion. The charity paid out more than VND1.6 billion (US$80,000) for patients' food in K Hospital and other places of need.
A couple who occupied a comfortable office opposite a cancer hospital witnessed the daily hell that patients and families appeared to going through and decided they could make a difference. Cam Giang
What can you do with just $1 to make a difference?
For Dang Xuan Hop and Le Nguyet Anh, founders of charity project SympaMeal, the answer is simple. One dollar can buy a meal to keep a cancer patient alive in the K Hospital.
Established in December of 2005, SympaMeal now delivers over 200 meal coupons a day to the patients who need them most. The coupon can be exchanged in the hospital's canteen for food or milk worth up to VND15,000 ($0.7).
Sitting in a corner of the canteen is 55-year-old Pham Thi An, about to receive a meal bought with a SympaMeals coupon.
Struggling to make ends meet while caring for her disabled 85-year-old mother in the norther province of Nam Dinh, hard-working An was diagnosed with breast cancer.
Unable to afford treatment, she refused to be hospitalised until the cancer spread to her lungs in October 2011. The hospital fee for An's treatment costs around VND107 million (US$5,350), however with her medical insurance, An only has to pay VND10 million ($500). But the specialist medicines she requires to survive mean Anh has to fork out an extra VND6 million ($300) per month. She has had to take out large bank loans in order to pay for the treatment and has little money left to buy food.
|Giving support: Cancer patients and their families sign for free food coupons. — VNS File Photos.
|Welcome gift: A cancer patient in hosptial for chemotherapy shows her SympaMeals coupons.
|Moral booster: Gifts lift the spirits of patients at the Ha Noi Hospice for the Elderly and Disabled Children at Thuy An, Ba Vi.
|Every bit helps: Forty tins of milk powder, each worth VND97,000 (US$4.80) are distributed to out-patients each week at K Hospital.
"One piece of food while hungry means as much as a big box of food while full," says An. "The lunch tickets offered by SympaMeals during my stay in K hospital has meant the world to me."
But the true worth of SympaMeals isn't limited to charity lunches. Since An's case was published on the project's facebook page, several benefactors have stepped in to support her, giving An immeasurable strength to fight her deadly illness.
Another cancer patient at the hospital, Le Thi Tham, added: "For those like us, the coupon is worth much more than a free lunch, it is a token of humanity."
In a place where exchanging a morning "Hello" with a patient can often end up being a final farewell, humanity is certainly the most sought after currency.
SympaMeals was born from an idea of Nguyet Anh, a white-collar worker who would often pass the hospital on her way home.
Nguyet Anh and her lawyer husband, Hop, work together in their Ha Noi Tower headquarters. Opposite their office, past the hustle and bustle of Hai Ba Trung Street, is the National Cancer Institute of Viet Nam. Commonly known as K Hospital, this is where cancer patients from across the country flock to in desperate search of hope. Nguyet Anh soon decided that it was her duty to help them.
"I saw lots of patients sitting on the pavements of Hai Ba Trung and Quan Su Street, eating a ball of rice or trying to sleep in the park nearby. I wanted to do something to help them and thought about the amount of food some people waste each day, while others cannot afford a decent meal. I shared my thoughts with my husband, but we struggled to think of a way we could get the project off the ground" she said.
It took the couple months to figure out the most effective way they could help. "It was also hard to determine which patients should receive coupons because there were hundreds in need, but my husband and I could only afford 20 VND5,000 coupons per day." Nguyet Anh recalled.
A month after the couple officially launched SympaMeals, disaster struck. Nguyet Anh's husband had to leave Viet Nam for 3 years and her second child was only 1 month old then.
She said: "We thought we would have to stop what we were doing, at least until my husband came back, or until my children reached school age. Fortunately, an ex-colleague of mine whose relative had died from cancer stepped in to run SympaMeals on our behalf, as well as spreading the word so we could attract donors."
SympaMeals has grown well beyond the expectation of its founders. In 2011, the company supplied over VND1.6 billion worth of free meal coupons and milk to patients and people in need. Thanks to over 100 donors, thousands of K Hospital patients were handed a lifeline.
"The donation could range from some dozen dong to millions. And it could come from anyone: a friend, a little girl that sells balloons in a trade market, a businessman, and even a patient's family member. " Hop said.
He recalls a case when a deceased patient's daughter called and invited him to her house. To their surprise, the girl opened her wardrobe and took out a wad of envelopes, which turned out to be gifts from relatives and friends at the funeral of her mother.
Hop added: "She gave us them all and just asked that the money be used for other cancer patients. The total amount was over 40 million dong," In most cases, the contributions are people's hard-earned money and that's why the project strives to save every penny to support people in suffering. All the Administrative Costs of the project, including employee payments, are paid solely by four executive committee members, leaving donor contributions to be spent where they're needed most.
"We couldn't do anything without the help of our family, friends and particularly donors, many of whom want to hide their identity. Our task is to make sure every contribution from the donors goes directly to the patients," Hop said.
And every now and then, a success story comes along that brings as much joy to the founders as they have to their patients.
A night before the Lunar New Year holidays 2010, Hop received a phonecall from a stranger.
"Do you remember me?" a lady's voice asked.
She was Tran Thi Chau, the very first cancer patient to receive free meals from Sympameals.
Similar to many patients at K hospital, the 52-year-old came from the central province of Nghe An. Her husband died of leukemia in 2000, leaving Chau to raise their three children alone. Two are handicapped, while the other has an innate heart disease.
At the end of 2008, Chau was hospitalised and told she had malignant lung cancer. After the operation, Chau decided to go home and give up the treatment process, because she couldn't afford the medical fees and didn't return to K hospital until April 2009 when she came back for chemotherapy. Once again, she was about to give up, as the treatment lasted longer than expected and she had nothing left to give.
SympaMeals found out about Chau just in time. She and her disabled child who were caring for her in the hospital were provided with meal tickets, transportation and living expenses. After five treatment stages, the project has supported her to the tune of 8.2 million dong.
Hop was completely shocked when Chau called.
"Usually, most of the patients leave the hospital in silence because they want to spend their last days at home. I never ask relatives because I don't want to bring up the pain. I hadn't heard anything about Chau for a while and had feared the worst."
Chau told him that she had totally recovered from the cancer. Hop and his wife almost burst into tears.
But for every happy-ending, the project is often confronted with tragedy.
There are cases that Nguyet Anh will never forget. One of those was Bui Van Hieu, a Muong ethnic child born in Thanh Hoa Province in 1998, who received special support from SympaMeals in 2010. A donor who wished to remain anonymous, together with SympaMeals, paid all the medical costs not covered by his health insurance, and also showered him with gifts. Unfortunately, Hieu did not beat his cancer.
Nguyet Anh recalls: "My husband and I were at Hieu's bedside with his parents for the last night in K Hospital before he was taken home. After Hieu's death, his parents sometimes called us just to say they were very sad and missed Hieu deeply". We didn't know what to say except asking them to take good care of themselves and their remaining son. This month, we received a call from Hieu's father again, but it was good news: His wife has just given birth to another son. He told us happily: "You are the first to know this after our close family, please share the joy with us". We were deeply moved by this. Hieu's parents once thought they could never overcome their loss. But they stood up, kept going on, and life has rewarded them for their efforts."
From only providing free meals, SympaMeal has expanded to other activities, including paying medical fees, medication and travel costs for cancer patients like Chau, as well as supporting HIV-affected children and elderly people in hospices. At least 700 donors have joined the projects over the past 7 years.
A resident near the hospital says about his reason to become a regular donor of SympaMeals, "It was so clear to me that there are two worlds, two very different worlds separated by the Hai Ba Trung Street. On this side it is air-conditioned offices, cleanliness, nice environment, easy work; on the other side is overcrowded wards, heat, poverty, despair and death. On this side, a lunch can easily cost hundreds of thousands of dong; on the other side, people queue patiently for a coupon while they go through chemotherapy and radiotherapy. Leftovers from the lunch of children in the foreign kindergarten on this side of the street are brought over to the other side, and divided among only the patients who can prove they are the poorest. Clearly, what SympaMeals have been doing has helped bringing these two worlds a step nearer." — VNS