At just 16 years old, a boy in Vietnam has said ‘goodbye’ to his teenage life in order to care for his bed-ridden mother as she battles cancer.
For the last 16 years, Vo Thi Hiet has been a mainstay at the local market, spending hours each day selling bananas and other produce in order to feed her son Le Viet Minh.
These days, however, the roles are reversed. The teenager, 16, has found himself bearing his small family’s financial burden and caring for his mother in the north-central province of Quang Binh.
The only difference is that instead of putting food on the table, Minh hopes the money he earns will be enough money to keep his mother alive for as long as possible.
Hiet was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2019. That same year, she underwent a series of surgeries at the Hue Central Hospital, located in central Thua Thien-Hue Province.
She returned to work selling bananas the moment doctors declared that she was in remission and released her from the hospital.
Still, the long hours she spent working at the market only brought in less than VND100,000 (US$4.30) per day — far from enough to pay for her medication.
In early 2020, Hiet was told that her cancer had returned and she started treatment at the Vietnam-Cuba Friendship Hospital in Dong Hoi City, the capital of Quang Binh — a cheaper alternative to Hue Central Hospital.
According to her doctors, the tumor had developed into its final stage and began metastasizing in her liver. Her prognosis, they say, is grim.
Minh has been her sole caregiver ever since. As such, he has been forced to drop out of school and take up his mother’s role as the provider for his family of two.
“My mom is my top priority. Education can wait. I can always return to school next year, but if I don’t take care of my mom now, I won’t have a mom to take care of next year,” Minh said.
|Le Viet Minh, 16, tends to his terminally-ill mother at their home in Quang Binh Province, Vietnam after quitting school to support his family financially. Photo: Q.Nam / Tuoi Tre|
Surviving day by day
Minh and Hiet are living in a small house near the entry of Dong Thanh Hamlet Cemetery in Nam Trach Commune, Bo Trach District, Quang Binh.
Just inside, Hiet lies in bed, struggling to breathe against the tumor growing in her abdomen.
Her sickness has progressed to the point that she can barely stomach the small portion of milk Minh feeds her each day. Sometimes even that is too difficult and the milk winds up in a puddle of sick on the floor.
When he is not helping feed and clean his mother, Minh is busy finding ways to provide for himself and his mother.
“One of my neighbors just told me they have a bunch of ripe bananas so I’m going over to harvest the fruit for sale later,” Minh explained, adding that he has developed a network of banana suppliers to ensure he always has stock.
It took Minh a few days before he became comfortable filling his mother’s shoes.
To say he was embarrassed is an understatement. But those feelings quickly washed away when he realized how important his work was to helping his mother survive.
In addition to selling bananas, Minh also trades plastic and cardboard.
According to Xoai, a local scrap collector, Minh began collecting plastic bottles and other recyclables the day his mother fell ill.
As for banana sale, the teenager was embarrassed to be doing it at first, but when he began making enough money to help his mother pay for medication he knew he had to keep doing it.
“Sometimes I see him arriving home from school with his backpack full of tin cans and paper scraps,” Xoai said.
Though he is making money from both bananas and scrap selling, Minh is not out of the woods yet.
Hiet’s condition has been getting worse and Minh has had to cut back on his working schedule.
Even with help from his neighbors, Minh worries his mother is not getting the help she needs.
|Le Viet Minh (left), 16, buys bananas from a neighbor for sale later to earn money for his family. Photo: Q.Nam / Tuoi Tre|
A future on the line
A few days ago, Le Van Ha, the headmaster of Minh’s school, asked him to come in and fill out paperwork so that he can return to school when he is ready without hassle.
“Teachers at our school have tried our best to support Minh but there really isn’t much we can do for him,” Ha shared.
Vo Tuan Trinh, the acting leader of Nam Trach Commune, said that the local administration is helping Minh and Hiet to their maximum capacity.
The commune leaders have matched donations and mobilized their officers to support the mother and her son.
“However, the mother can’t stay with her son forever. The fact that Minh will be by himself eventually is an extremely sad reality and we worry about it every day,” Trinh admitted.