A woman shares her traumatic past and an incredible story of overcoming polio in the aftermath of war
This book is not intended to be a history of the American War. This is my own personal history based on facts, memory, and creative license. This is my story as I remember it. Dates, scenes, locations, and conversations are based on my recall, as well as on conversations with others about the events. Some names and other identifying details have been changed.
My memoir is my gift to you—particularly for those who feel invisible, underappreciated, underutilized, made fun of, disrespected, and not valued. Hope is the fuel that made the difference and kept me alive. Unwavering determination kept me focused on my future and enabled me to continually reinvent myself due to constantly changing circumstances. Personal reinventions during my moments of darkest despair provided powerful new beginnings.
I hope that my journey as a person who is an immigrant and differently abled will build bridges of interconnectedness and cultural understanding and give inspiration to treating all people with dignity, respect, and inclusion.
The following are excerpts from Thuhang Tran’s memoir titled Standing Up After Saigon: The Triumphant Story of Hope, Determination, and Reinvention (Brown Books Publishing Group):
Memories of my childhood 43 years ago are seared into my brain like a branding iron stamped on the flesh of a cow. I remember the events vividly, as if they happened yesterday. My heart thunderously pounds in my chest as I share my story with you.
My new rattan suitcase with red leather trim sat in the corner of the living room. It was filled to the brim with hope of a new life.
Mom and I had spent several days shopping for new clothes for my trip to West Germany. She carefully packed each item with love and care. My favorite outfit was a big orange-and-white polkadot shirt and pants. This colorful, cool pantsuit was the last item packed. Mom placed my travel documents on top of my mod looking outfit. I was scheduled to leave Saigon on June 14.
I needed to be brave. I was five years old, and I was going to travel from Saigon to West Germany for polio rehabilitation therapy. My leg muscles had atrophied, and my left leg bent at an odd angle, like a broken pencil, as I crawled along the floor. My clothing had ragged holes in the knees from my aggressive movements to keep up with my older brother, Quang Phuong, my sister, Linh Phuong, and the neighborhood kids.
I was forced to crawl awkwardly like an infant while I yearned to run free and fast like other children. I used to walk and run until I developed a high fever at age two and a half. My siblings and I had been vaccinated for polio, but when I became ill, my leg muscles weakened. My parents were shocked when the doctor said that I had contracted paralytic polio. Dad constantly researched polio treatments with the hope that I would someday walk again. I tried acupuncture and monthly electric shock treatments, chay dien, to activate my leg nerves. Nothing helped. Dad heard about the Kenny regimen, a new polio treatment involving hot, moist packs with exercises to strengthen unaffected muscles. A West German foundation provided this revolutionary Kenny treatment. My family and I were ecstatic when I was accepted into the program.
I was relentless, so finally Mom agreed that I could go to kindergarten. I was eight years old at the time and much older than the other children in the class. After a few months, I moved from kindergarten to first grade.
Miss Lanh, my first-grade teacher, was very understanding, and she encouraged me to take the test to move to second grade. I can still clearly see Miss Lanh in her beautiful traditional Vietnamese clothing, with a form-fitting silk tunic over pants, called ao dai, that she wore every day to school. Miss Lanh was someone who stood up for what she believed was right. I admired her and wanted to grow up to be just like her.
Miss Lanh helped me learn after school so that I would be well prepared to take the test to go into second grade. She was someone who believed in me and wanted to see me continue to learn and stay in school. I passed the test and moved to second grade quickly, where I was with students my same age.
Mom worried about how other children would treat me. When I started attending school, some kids stared, snickered, and made fun of me, but most were nice, and I made some friends. However, one boy started picking on me. He would grab my backpack and throw it. Then I would have to retrieve it with my slow, awkward squatting movement by wrapping one arm around each leg and moving one foot at a time about four inches.
At first, when this boy threw my backpack, I cried. The male teacher didn’t seem to notice or care, even when I sobbed loudly. Then I became angry when it happened. I started thinking of ways to stop this boy from tormenting me.
Before reunification, girls wore a white ao dai to school, and boys wore black pants with a white shirt. After reunification, they required girls and boys to wear the same school uniform—black pants and a white shirt. Clothing was an expensive luxury, so most children only had one or two school uniforms. I had two school uniforms. Each night, Mom washed the uniform I had worn that day and strung the pants and shirt on a wire in the yard to dry.
We didn’t have enough money to buy pencils or pens, so we made bottles of ink at home with a purple fruit, hat mong toi. It was a fruit like pokeberry that was used to dye fabric. After boiling and mashing the fruit, we poured the liquid into a bottle. We used a dip pen as our writing tool. We placed the dip pen in the bottle of ink and then wrote a few letters, let the paper dry, and then dipped the pen again into the ink. We had to be careful writing to make sure that the fruit ink didn’t absorb onto the page underneath the page we were writing on, or our hands were slapped with rulers by the teacher.
One night, I decided to make two bottles of ink. The next day at school, when the boy grabbed my backpack, I decided that enough was enough. I opened the extra bottle of ink and hurled it at his white shirt. Instantly, his shirt transformed into a bold, purple burst of color. He started crying and wailed, “I only have one shirt for school.”
The teacher roughly grabbed me by my shirt collar and dragged me to the front of the classroom.
He asked, “Which hand did you use to throw the bottle of ink?”
I told a small lie because I didn’t want the teacher to hurt the hand I wrote with.
“I used my left hand.”
“Open your left palm right now.”
The teacher grabbed his large wooden ruler and raised it way above his head. He paused for dramatic effect and then aggressively hit me on my open palm. Pain seared from my hand to my shoulder, but I was determined not to cry. He continued to thrash my palm with forty lashes. My palm was bright red and swollen with blisters. I remained stoic. I did not want to give him the satisfaction that he had hurt me.
The lashes on my palm were one of my most painful images of a victim being victimized a second time. When I cried each time the boy threw my backpack, my teacher ignored me, and I felt invisible. When I chose to do something about the bad behavior, I was victimized again. It was a weird dynamic that I have since seen repeatedly.
Dad encouraged us to Americanize our names. He said that Americans had difficulty pronouncing our names correctly. The Vietnamese naming convention lists a person’s last name first. Because Americans do the reverse and put their first names first and their last names last, Dad said that he was often being called by his last name. Dad Americanized his name and changed it from Tran Van Chinh to Chinh Van Tran.
After thinking about Americanizing their names, Quang Phuong chose the name Peter since Phuong and Peter both start with P. Linh Phuong changed her name to Lynn because Linh and Lynn are pronounced the same.
I tried several different attempts at a name change. I tried shortening my name to Thu and also to Hang; both were often mispronounced. One time at school, one of my classmates suggested an American name for me: Susan. I liked the sound of it and adopted it. One afternoon, I was driving my electric scooter that I had borrowed from the disability services center at school, heading toward the cafeteria. I heard someone shouting, but I continued to the cafe. One of my classmates rushed to my side and said, “Hey, I called your name, but you just ignored me.”
I replied, “I didn’t hear you call.”
He said, “I called you Susan.”
I didn’t even think twice and answered, “No, it’s Thu Hang.”
And then I realized that the name Susan wouldn’t work. I decided to simply put my two names together; I became Thuhang rather than Thu Hang.
Even though Dad was demanding about assimilating into American culture, he was also well connected with many Vietnamese people in San Antonio. He had founded and was president of the San Antonio Vietnamese Association. He worked extremely hard to keep Vietnamese culture intact within our community. He inspired me to believe that I could be proud of my Vietnamese heritage while learning about American culture and norms. He taught me to cherish both Eastern and Western cultures.
When Dad had heard that we were approved to move to America, he immediately researched polio treatments and surgeries. He spoke with several doctors ahead of time and set up appointments for me to meet with them once I arrived in San Antonio. Within my first thirty days of being on US soil, I was examined to determine whether I would ever stand up and walk.
The possibilities of my new life stretched beyond my wildest dreams and imagination.
The first doctor I visited in San Antonio was Dr. Rick Barohn, a neurologist at the University of Texas Health Science Center. Dr. Barohn completed his medical and neurology residency at Wilford Hall USAF Medical Center at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio.10 Dad had met with Dr. Barohn before I arrived in America. The two of them hit it off instantly due to their Air Force connection. Dr. Barohn was warm, friendly, and gregarious. He confirmed my diagnosis as polio and referred me to Dr. Bob Jones, a physiatrist.
A physiatrist is a doctor who specializes in physical medicine and rehabilitation for patients who have movement or mobility impairment due to illness or injury. Physical medicine and rehabilitation physicians have extensive knowledge of nerves, muscles, bones, and the brain. When I visited Dr. Jones, he evaluated my range of motion while I demonstrated how I moved around. His notes from our visit indicated that my left knee was severely deformed and bent at a thirty-five-degree angle. An interpreter in the examination room ensured that we understood each other accurately.
Dr. Jones said, “I wish I had seen you when you were ten or eleven years old. We could have improved your mobility and maybe helped you walk normally.”
With a quiver in my voice, I tentatively asked him, “Can you help me walk now?”
He replied, “I think we can definitely help you walk; it will probably be with the aid of braces and crutches.”
With tears welling up in my eyes, I softly said, “Thank you. This has been my dream for a long time.”
Dr. Jones stated that an orthopedic surgeon would have to straighten my left leg. This required surgical intervention consisting of cutting the bone above and below my knee and inserting steel bolts and screws so that my knee could bend and move correctly so that I could be in an upright position. He mentioned that I would spend six months in a leg cast and possibly up to one year in physical therapy.
Because he specialized in rehabilitation of the whole individual, he advised that standing upright after squatting on the floor for the past seventeen years would change my breathing and communication, which would impact my speech capabilities. He indicated that I also needed speech therapy.
Dr. Jones asked if additional physicians, residents, and medical students in graduate school could meet me. He said that they rarely had patients with polio. Soon the examination room was filled with doctors asking many questions and watching as I demonstrated my movements to get across the floor. Throughout my surgery and recovery, I received many visits from different doctors and residents.
Dr. Jones recommended Dr. David Anderson, an orthopedic surgeon. Dr. Anderson concurred with Dr. Jones’s assessment and scheduled my surgery at the Medical Center in San Antonio. I couldn’t believe that I had only been in the United States for two months, and I was scheduled to have surgery to help me stand upright and walk. It was a dream come true!
The night before my surgery, we had a special dinner at home as a celebration. Dad cooked his specialty—steak and baked potatoes with all of the toppings. Mom was extremely nervous about my surgery and was constantly praying the rosary and asking God to bless me. Peter and Lynn were excited for me. We all sat down to a great meal and thanked God for our blessings.
As I packed my suitcase for the hospital, I thought about the symbolism of new beginnings, adventure, expanded horizons, and, most of all, hope. I packed lightly because I was going to be in the ICU for two to three weeks, and then I would be moved to a rehabilitation facility for several months.
As I was wheeled into the operating room, I noticed that the room was filled with many physicians and nurses. Dr. Anderson also pointed out the medical school residents standing above us on the second floor watching through a plate-glass window. I felt a little bit like a celebrity. The operation took a grueling ten and a half hours. My family waited nervously in the waiting room to hear from Dr. Anderson.
When the doctor approached my family, Dad jumped up from his chair and asked how I was doing. Dr. Anderson indicated that the surgery was a success, but I would be heavily medicated for the next few days to ensure a smooth recovery. I barely remembered the male nurse who checked on me in the recovery room. I tried to stay focused and open my eyes, but I quickly fell back to sleep.
About the Book
A true story of familial love and triumph through adversity, Thuhang Tran and Sharon Orlopp document decades in the lives of Thuhang and her father, Chinh Tran. Thuhang was born in 1970 in Saigon, near the end of the American War. She contracted polio as a toddler, and though her family sacrificed much to seek treatment, their efforts were halted by the reunification period. Chinh was an air traffic controller at the time, and was lost in the evacuations from Saigon, separated from Thuhang and the rest of his family and presumed dead. The story follows Thuhang and Chinh through their respective struggles, from Thuhang’s battle with polio and the impact of her father’s absence, to Chinh’s immigration to the US and his desperate 15-year mission to be reunited with his family.
To purchase the book Standing Up After Saigon: The Triumphant Story of Hope, Determination, and Reinvention, visit www. standingupaftersaigon.com.
Text and Images courtesy of Thuhang Tran and Sharon Orlopp