By Grace Mishler, assisted by Tram Nguyen
Nguyen Thi Thu Thao, age 24, died Easter morning, April 5. She held a degree from Ho Chi Minh City University of Agriculture and Forestry. She battled for seven years with thyroid cancer, kidney disease, and eye pain.
Thao and her brother had participated in our Vietnam Student Eye Care Project over a course of nine months. On March 26 we had taken her to the American Eye Center for an emergency consultation. She was having excruciatingly painful swollen eyes.
Thien An Blind School responds
On Easter morning, students at Thien An Blind School received news that their fellow blind classmate, Thao, had died. We came together at 5 p.m., Easter evening, to commemorate the events leading to Thao’s death. The headmaster asked me to eulogize at this gathering to celebrate the inspiring life she left behind for us. Though she suffered, her face was radiant with smiles. I felt the grief of the blind children. We ate a meal together, then we gathered to pray, sing songs, recite the Rosary, and planned our trip for Monday to Di Linh district’s coffee farming community to join in the Buddhist celebration of Thao’s life.
The Thien An School for the Blind, the headmaster, the Catholic sister, and I took the time to visit the Shrine of the Mother Mary. Again, we recited the Rosary.
Celebration of Thao’s life
At her memorial, Thao’s body was placed in a casket and buried in a Buddhist cemetery in the rural district area of Di Linh, the same area where International Volunteer Service workers and Vietnam Christian Service workers provided humanitarian aid work before 1975.
Thao grew up in the coffee groves. She had retinol dystrophy. She left her home community to come to the university where she received a degree at Ho Chi Minh University of Agriculture and Forestry. She was working on her second degree in Japanese Studies. Although she suffered for seven years, she continued to follow her dream of higher education. Thao was able to pursue her dream effectively by living at Thien An, where she had support services for independent living, academic studies, necessary IT support services, and advocacy. Back home, her family are coffee farmers. They wanted her to come home to live during her long-term illness but she was determined to complete her education.
At the service celebrating her life, the Catholic sister shared a letter written by a spiritual father. Thao had shared on Easter morning with her caregiver at the hospital, and her last words were: “I am dying.” A radiant smile of peace came across her.
I shared with her family and community and friends at the service: “Thao taught me that even in the midst of suffering, even in the midst of pain, we can be joyful and resilient.”
The rural authorities sought me out to come close to the casket, which had been lowered into the ground. They gave me a handful of dirt to throw down to the burial site before they began to cover the casket. Later, Thao’s parents came to me twice, the final time when I was boarding the bus to leave. They thanked me for coming to the funeral, and appreciated that I helped their daughter and son with their eye problems.
Thao has two other siblings who are blind, too. One brother is a math teacher at Nguyen Dinh Chieu Blind School in Ho Chi Minh City. Another is an IT teacher at Thien An Blind School.
What a legacy for poor Vietnamese coffee farmers, who sacrificed their livelihood to send their children off to the big city for education. And what a legacy that Thao embraced her ability in being self-aware and resilient even while living with chronic pain and suffering. She was ahead of her times because she achieved even when no formalized academic structures were in place to assist. She was fortunate to live at Thien An School for the Blind.
— Grace Mishler is a program volunteer working in Vietnam through the Church of the Brethren Global Mission and Service. This article was provided with thanks to Tram Nguyen, Mishler’s assistant. Mishler is on the faculty of Vietnam National University of Social Sciences and Humanities as Social Work Project Developer. For more about the disabilities ministry in Vietnam see www.brethren.org/partners/vietnam .