|Illustration by Dao Quoc Huy
by Vu Hoang Lam
It was Wednesday night when Ngon rang up his father from his house in Hai Phong city.
"Dad, Uncle Linh called me early this afternoon from Bac Giang town. He said that in Bach Mai Hospital, Ha Noi, there is an Anti-Poison Ward," he told the middle-aged teacher Thi. "Uncle was also told that after a week's preliminary treatment, a patient can overcome his drug addiction. Then he can take a pill once per day to prevent the addiction from coming back. Tomorrow, why don't you go to the capital to see to the matter, then take me there?"
"But tomorrow I've got four classes to teach," replied his father.
"Classes mean nothing in comparison with my health, Dad. The problem lies in your determination, you see."
The next morning, the village teacher caught the first bus to Ha Noi.
He was in the habit of falling asleep whenever he took a bus from one city to another. When the bus reached a small town called Pho Noi and the passengers were allowed to get off for breakfast, he would usually buy something to eat. This time he stayed wide-awake throughout the long journey. The reason was rather simple: his son had become addicted to drugs ten years before.
Ngon was then very interested in football. As a skilled player, he was encouraged to indulge in narcotics after each hard match to regain his strength. Gradually, he and three other young players on his team, all coming from decent families, became victims of addiction.
"That disease is incurable," said one of Thi's close friends. "To the best of my knowledge, the three guys are now waifs and strays somewhere."
"Why do I have to give myself up in this life-and-death struggle?" the teacher whispered to himself. He came from scholarly stock; his father had been a feudal court mandarin who left no material fortune behind for his offspring, but was a treasure house of knowledge. Thi wished to hand down to his son the aspiration to make a distinguished career. Poor kid! This kind-hearted man could not help his son achieve his ambitious goal, because the boy had been pampered too much since boyhood. Somehow, Ngon succeeded in entering the Engine Department of the University of Transport while his father became an educational expert in Algeria. Ngon asked his father to let him transfer into the Department of Economics on the same campus, but he refused point-blank.
"Working in the Faculty of Engine, you'll have a lot of chances to invent things. As for the Economics Department, you can hardly make a good career," he wrote to his beloved son in reply.
At the sight of Ngon silently walking towards the railroad, then at home quietly falling asleep on his bed with weary eyes, Thi remained calm, although everybody in the family blamed him for the youth's misfortune.
"My son's only a victim," Thi said to his wife.
"Well, you're still taking his side, aren't you?" she reprimanded him.
"To save his life, we must love him tenderly," he retorted. "It's just a social malady, darling."
"You think you're so reasonable that all of us ought to obey your instructions, don't you?"
In fact, Ngon had tried to exert himself to the utmost, so his health seemed normal. He married Thao, a well-mannered schoolteacher. They had twin daughters named Huyen Dieu and Huyen Chi.
Unluckily for them, their meagre monthly salaries gradually disappeared.
On his father's advice, Ngon was sent to the provincial reformatory. Every week, Thao went to see him, bringing lots of food to improve his health. After one month, he looked much better. Three months later, he returned home completely recovered. The neighbours came to visit him and congratulate him on his achievements. Sadly, a few delinquents came one evening and all the work he had done to recover came to nothing.
As a result, once again he silently left home early in the morning with a cap covering half his face, then returned home wearily. After that, he fell into a drug-induced ecstasy on his bed. Rumor had it that Ngon suffered from HIV. Thao's headmaster told her that if that were the case, she would be sacked following the regulations of the school.
"If that happens, we'll just move to Cat Ba Island," she said. "I'll live with him until his death, then I'll jump into the sea!"
The next day, Ngon went to the local clinic to have an HIV test. Soon, the master received the result.
"Fortunately for you, he got a negative result," he told Thao.
One evening, Ngon left home aimlessly. All night long, none of the family could sleep soundly. All they could do was wait for his knock at the door. However, all of their expectations were in vain. Only the whispering sounds of the wind could be heard.
"Why are you still awake?" Huyen Chi, who was in preschool, asked her mother.
Early next morning Thi went in search of his son. After looking for hours, the old man found Ngon sitting by the lake. He told his father that thirty thousand dong was inadequate for his drug addiction, he needed much more than that - say, fifty thousand.
On the day when Ngon attended his friend Tin's funeral procession, he said to his parents in a sorrowful voice, "My fate will certainly be the same."
"No, never, my dear son! You must wait and have faith in the future. We're always by your side. But you must learn how to control yourself," Thi advised his child.
"I came here from Hai Phong city," Thi told the young nurse on duty in the Anti-Poison Ward. "I'd like to know all the procedures necessary for my son's acceptance into your place, please."
"First of all, your son has to make a petition himself," she explained.
"Here it is already! My son worked out this proposal yesterday. Please have a look at it," he answered, handing it to her.
After reading the paper, she told him, "This must be confirmed by the local public security authorities. They must stamp their own seal on it and include their phone number as well. Besides, two 4x6 photos must be attached to the request."
"What about the Centre's fee, Nurse?"
"Three million dong plus the same sum for ten days' worth of medication. Then depending on your son's health situation, food supplements might be needed, which cost extra. He'll stay in a private well-furnished room."
Ngon was admitted to the ward at 10am. The nurse gave him two forms. "One of them is for an HIV check, while the other one is for a hepatitis check. Usually we don't accept HIV patients. As for hepatitis, it must be treated first," she said to him before he walked to the laboratory. In the corridor, the old man stared at his son worriedly.
"Once I tripped over a used syringe near the railroad," he said. "I'm afraid that I might have that dangerous disease!"
The old teacher felt deeply depressed. He phoned his wife in Hai Phong to inform her of their son's seemingly bad situation. The whole clan was in great confusion.
Half an hour later, Ngon gave his father the two forms. He had tested negative for both diseases. The old man was too moved to express his delight. At once, he made a phone call to his relatives in the port city to inform them of the encouraging results and urge them to bring all the relevant papers and fees.
At a quarter to four, Thao turned up at the hospital. Her husband was soon admitted to the clinic with ten million dong recently withdrawn from the local bank.
Entering Room 5, Ngon hurriedly walked into the toilet to take his last tablet. The place was fully equipped with an air conditioner, a bed, a washbasin, a small cabinet and a TV. After that, he had a transfusion. During the first night, Thao stayed inside the room to look after him. The next morning, Thi came in to replace his daughter-in-law. Glancing at the broken chair, he knew that during the previous night his son had convulsed violently in agony before taking some painkillers.
Dung, the doctor in charge of Ngon's case, visited him a few hours later.
"He must be cared for round the clock. Any member of the family can do it. Nobody else is allowed to stay here for fear that the patient might be provided with drugs," he told Ngon's father.
"Don't worry, sir! We'll do our best to take care of him throughout his treatment period," insisted Thi.
While Ngon was still in bed, his father always stayed beside his son.
"You'd better rest to save your strength for the days to come," Dung suggested.
"How could I do so? All our hope lies in my hands during this 10-day period. It's a life-and-death fight for us all, you see," replied the old man. Thao had to return home to Hai Phong to resume teaching, but his wife, a retired public servant, could stay in the hospital to help him. Their two adopted sons were also present to look after their brother until 11pm. Thi never let them care for Ngon at night.
On the morning of the fifth day of treatment, the nurse announced that the drugs had been completely eliminated from Ngon's system. If nothing went wrong, he would be allowed to go home soon.
On the sixth day, with the amount of extra medicine reduced, Ngon began to feel uneasy. He asked for all kinds of food: noodles, rice porridge, fried spring rolls. His mother met all his demands, but he only touched the dishes reluctantly with a pair of chopsticks. On the eighth day, he told his mother, "Mum, I feel that the joints of my limbs are loosened. Please take me home as soon as possible." Her husband realized that it was now the critical moment in his son's life. He hurried out in search of Dung to find out his opinion.
"Don't worry. It's a decisive moment for all of us here. I'm fully aware of it," the GP said to him.
A few minutes later, he entered Room 5 together with a nurse and encouraged the patient in a soft voice.
"Ngon, this is a very important moment. Your will power is now urgently needed. So far, we've done our utmost to support you. Now, you must make your own effort," he said.
"But Doctor, I can't stand it any longer," Ngon implored in tears. "All my fingers and toes are getting more and more loosened. Please, let me go home at once!"
His mother wept and wept.
The doctor told Ngon, "All kinds of medicine available have been used. If I can't help you to overcome your addiction, I'll let you go home immediately." After that, he began to measure Ngon's blood pressure and heartbeat.
"You've played football, haven't you?" the physician asked him. "Surely, you've got a strong body, sharp eyes and a clear-sighted mind. Nurse Thuy, please give him an injection of painkiller."
After a few minutes, Ngon moaned again. "Mum, take me home please," he insisted.
At 9pm Dung came back to Ngon's bed. Finding him strongly beating his arms and legs, he massaged his limbs. Again, he measured his blood pressure and took his pulse.
"Miss Thuy, give him another injection. Just half an ampoule, my dear," he told her.
Two hours later, Ngon continued convulsing.
"What's the matter with him?" the old teacher asked himself. Immediately, he went out to see the nurse and asked her to report his son's condition to Dung.
"While playing football, which role did you act?" the doctor said to his patient.
"Central forward, sir."
"Did you ever get any foul play from your opponents?"
"Yes, a lot in most of the matches, sir."
"What did you do then?"
"Putting it aside, I darted ahead to score."
"Such is life, you see. But, for the time being, are you resigned to your fate?"
"Not really! Yet it's beyond endurance, sir," Ngon replied. "Come what may, let me go home as soon as possible, sir. Please forgive me for my feeble spirit."
The doctor stared at him fixedly. After checking his pulse and measuring his blood pressure again, he ordered Thuy, "Give him the remaining half ampoule."
Five minutes later, Ngon started falling asleep.
Thi told his wife to return to the boarding house. He switched off the light and closed the door. Hardly had he lain on the floor when Thuy stepped in.
"You must switch the light on so that I may check on him, Uncle," she told the old man. "Dr. Dung told me that his heart might stop beating for a little while."
Hearing the news, Thi's wife seized his hands.
"I believed you when you said we must send him to the hospital. Now, his life's in danger! How can I live to see him come home as a dead body?" she reproached her husband.
"Get out of here and come back to the boarding-house. It's no use staying here," he told her. Silently she stepped out of Room 5. "His heart might stop beating" - those words from the nurse made the couple greatly worried.
At 11pm sharp, Dung came to visit Ngon while he was trembling on his bed and about to walk into the toilet. In a few minutes, he returned to his bed. Thi held his son's hands to prevent him from falling and Dung helped him lie down on the bed. "Everything is okay," he whispered to himself. "The nurse on duty is now in her room. You can relax a bit," he told Thi.
Again, Dung came back to Room 5 before handing the lofty mission over to the next shift. To his surprise, Ngon was now sitting up in bed. "After taking some more pills, you may return to your boarding house tomorrow afternoon," the doctor told him. "Starting the day after tomorrow, you must come here every day to take more medicine. For three months, you're not allowed to stay alone."
Ten years had elapsed. Ngon's life was back to normal. Yet he was unable to forget those nights in the hospital.
"I'll be extremely grateful to Dr. Dung forever," he vowed.
Translated by Van Minh