When phantom chills began regularly sweeping over Helen Huynh, her family told her not to worry. You’re healthy, they said.
Indeed, at first doctors could find nothing wrong with the 60-year-old. She and her husband, Vien, who live in Garden Grove, Calif., continued to put in two hours every day at their local gym. She kept up her gardening.
But she still fretted about her health. “We always thought she was being a hypochondriac,” her oldest daughter, Yvonne AiVan Murray, told The Washington Post.
The Vietnam-born mother of three grown daughters repeatedly returned to the doctor. A high white blood cell count led to further examinations, and on Valentine’s Day, the physicians announced a bombshell diagnosis: Helen had acute myeloid leukemia. The following months proved to be a grinding cycle of hospital stays and chemotherapy and remission.
There was hope. Doctors told Helen’s family the patient needed a lifesaving stem cell transplant. The procedure required as close of a genetic match to Helen as possible. Her three sisters — all living in Vietnam — were the best bet. Doctors could proceed if they found a 70 percent match. Helen’s youngest sibling, Thuy Nguyen, was a rare 100 percent match.
“We were all like, ‘Hallelujah! All we have to do is fly her here,'” Murray explained to The Post. “And that’s when everything fell apart.”
In the last year, Helen’s sister has repeatedly applied for a visa to travel to the United States for the medical procedure. The application has been denied every time thanks to snares in the immigration process. The medical emergency comes at a time when any border crossing is hot-wired with politics, but Helen’s family here — all of whom are U.S. citizens — say their request is a clear-cut matter of life or death.
“We feel betrayed,” Murray said. “We feel like we’re doing everything we can, we can show that we are Americans, yet there is only one thing preventing us from getting the stem cell transplant, and that’s the U.S. government.”
That betrayal burns hotter due to the family’s deep feeling for their adopted homeland.
Vien Huynh was an officer in the South Vietnamese army and fought alongside American troops in the country’s bloody struggle in the 1960s and 1970s. After the United States pulled out of the country, the victorious North Vietnamese government shipped him to a brutal re-education camp in the country’s north. He stayed for eight years. “It was basically like what John McCain went through,” Murray explained, referring to the senator from Arizona who was once a prisoner of war.
After his release, he met and married Helen. According to her daughter, Helen’s life was similarly marked by the country’s conflict. Murray grew up hearing stories from her mother about falling asleep at night to gunfire in the distance, or going down to a riverbank to see her favorite flowers — water hyacinths — and finding dead bodies floating with the purple blossoms. Both Murray and her sister Sharon were born in Vietnam, but America was always on the family’s horizon.
“My earliest memory is with my dad, when I was 3 or 4,” Murray said. “He took me to this store for a globe, and he pointed to where America was, and said, ‘This is America, this is where freedom is, and one day we are going to live there.’
“And he did everything he could to make sure we did.”
Because of a U.S. government program offering former South Vietnamese officials and officers the opportunity to move to the United States, the family relocated to California in 1991. The couple’s third daughter, Tiffany, who has Down syndrome, was born in 1992.
To support the family, Vien delivered pizzas, newspapers and passed out coupons at Disneyland. Helen raised the children while collecting recyclables for extra money and helping with Vien’s work. Her kitchen was always filled with Vietnamese home cooking.
“She is such a generous person,” Murray told The Post. “She would always make sure everyone was fed, even when we didn’t have a lot. There was no question.”
All five family members eventually gained U.S. citizenship. Helen’s two oldest daughters married and started their own families. She remained, however, Tiffany’s primary caregiver, right up to her sickness.
Following the diagnosis, Helen’s sister, Thuy Nguyen, went to interview with U.S. officials at the embassy in Ho Chi Minh City for a visa.
According to Murray, the officials were mainly interested in whether Nguyen had been out of Vietnam before. When they learned she had not, they quickly ended the conversation. In a denial letter, the consulate stated Nguyen had failed to offer necessary evidence that she would leave America once her visa was up.
“Evidence may come in many forms, but when considered together, it must be enough for the interviewing officer to conclude that the applicant’s overall circumstances, including social, family, economic and other ties abroad, will compel him or her to leave the United States at the end of the temporary stay,” the letter stated.
“Regrettably, Ms. Nguyen was unable to establish to the satisfaction of the interviewing officer that her employment, financial and family situation in Vietnam constituted sufficient ties to compel her to depart the United States.”
“It’s stupid,” Murray said. “They are looking at you and want to see you went out of your country and came back. But in my aunt’s case, she’s had no interest in visiting other countries.”
Nguyen — who owns businesses and has a family in Vietnam — applied again with proof she was financially stable in her home country. “She’s not poor, but that’s the mentality that these interviewers have: If you are from a less developed country, you won’t leave,” Murray said.
The family also filed letters from Helen’s doctors urging government officials to grant the visa.
“This patient will benefit from a life-saving procedure utilizing stem cells,” a physician from the University of California at Irvine Medical Center wrote in an August letter. “For humanitarian reasons, we are requesting the patient’s sister . . . be granted a Temporary Visa to enter the United States so that she can assist in donating her stem cells to save our patient’s life.”
“This is a very urgent matter,” another doctor from City of Hope Medical Center added in a separate June letter. “Time is of the essence.”
Two additional visa requests were denied. As a last resort, the family has hired an immigration attorney to file for humanitarian parole, a Hail Mary petition for emergency entry into the country. Murray told The Post as of Monday the government was still considering the application. They have also appealed to politicians.
To help with both the mounting legal and medical bills, the family has started up a Go Fund Me page for donations.
But doctors have also told Helen’s family to brace for the inevitable. Helen is in the hospital. She has not been able to eat on her own for three weeks. “Nothing is for sure right now,” Murray said. “Honestly, at this point, we’re so frustrated. If my aunt was approved the first time, my mom would be well.”
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