A Vietnamese refugee lay near death in a sterile Chicago hospital room Wednesday, unaware that he is the object of a massive international effort to save him that involves an unprecedented show of cooperation between two former enemy nations, the United States and Vietnam.
A younger brother--the one person on earth who may be able to deliver the gift of life to the refugee--is scheduled to leave Ho Chi Minh City for Chicago today in a trip that is the culmination of heroic efforts by doctors, medical institutions and diplomats.
Vo Tien Duc, 33, who fled Vietnam by boat seven years ago, is in the intensive care unit of the University of Illinois Medical Center suffering from aplastic anemia, a disease in which the bone marrow stops making essential white blood cells.
His brother, Vo Hoang Van, 18, who lives in a Mekong Delta hamlet, is to arrive in Chicago perhaps as early as Friday to participate in an emergency bone marrow transplant that doctors hope will save the life of Duc.
Doctors have given Duc as little as two weeks to live without the marrow transplant, which must come from a sibling with a compatible blood type. Until the operation, he is being kept alive with blood transfusions--more than two pints each day.
"I'm weak. I'm tired," Duc tells his doctors each morning from his hospital bed.
"I think he knows how sick he is," said Dr. Melody A. Cobleigh, an assistant professor of medicine and an oncologist. "But he hasn't a clue to what's being done for him."
Despite the absence of formal diplomatic relations, the governments in Hanoi and Washington helped doctors in a rush effort to locate Van in Vietnam, test his blood and expedite his departure for Chicago.
Contacts between the United States and Vietnam have been minimal since Communist North Vietnam toppled the American-backed South Vietnamese government 10 years ago next Tuesday.
Although several thousand Vietnamese leave for the United States every year under a special refugee program, most of them wait three to four years before securing permission to go. And a State Department official who called the current exchange "unprecedented" was careful to stress that both governments are cooperating with third parties, not each other.
The train of events that will bring Van--one of 10 children of a fish trader in a small Kien Giang province town 150 miles south of Ho Chi Minh City--to his brother's bedside in a modern university medical center within sight of the towering Chicago skyline began only three weeks ago. The effort has enlisted the aid and charity of individuals and medical facilities in several countries and has overcome severe bureaucratic, geographic and logistical obstacles.
Father of Four
It was only a month ago that Duc, who is married, the father of four small children and unemployed, complained of a sore throat, then was quickly overwhelmed with infection and fever. He was transferred from a community hospital to the medical center here, where his condition was diagnosed as aplastic anemia.
The diagnosis set off an unsuccessful nationwide search for ATG, a rare drug that has been used to successfully treat some aplastic anemia patients. "We called all over Chicago and the country and couldn't locate any anywhere," Cobleigh said in a Chicago interview.
"I was making the rounds with my resident and he said, 'Dr. Cobleigh, this is terrible. Here's a guy with a curable disease and we're not doing anything.' That's when I decided to try to find his relatives," she said. "I didn't know how complicated it would get."
That evening, during a chance meeting with an infectious disease specialist in the hospital parking lot, Cobleigh asked, in desperation, if he knew anybody in Vietnam. He recommended that she call a Wisconsin doctor who, it turned out, had been one of Cobleigh's classmates in medical school.
Group Has Hanoi Contacts
That was Dr. Judith L. Ladinsky, the newly chosen chairman of the U.S. Committee for Scientific Cooperation with Vietnam. The 250-member group, composed mainly of university academicians, sponsors scientific exchanges between the two countries and has good contacts in the Hanoi government.
Ladinsky, a professor of preventive medicine at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, quickly secured State Department assurance that a Vietnamese donor would be granted entry to the United States. She then contacted officials in Hanoi and at Vietnam's U.N. Mission in New York, seeking permission to enter Vietnam and asking for assistance in locating Duc's family.
She received her visa a week later, borrowed $5,000 for the trip from a doctor at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and arrived in Ho Chi Minh City on April 18 aboard the weekly Air France flight, the only scheduled commercial service from the non-communist world to the former South Vietnamese capital, once known as Saigon.