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An American 'Mom' to Immigrant Families


Early one morning the young Vietnamese woman awoke and discovered she could barely move. A rash she'd recently developed was much worse, and her already-swollen joints had stiffened further. When at last she forced herself out of bed, she found she was unable to bend over a nearby crib to tend her infant son.

In her new world in Southern California, the woman knew only one person guaranteed to help her. So, with enormous difficulty, she crept downstairs to the telephone. Before long, Joan Eichinger--accompanied by her son Dan and Dan's Vietnamese-American wife--was speeding toward the woman's rented room.

The three rescuers took the woman to the emergency room at UCI Medical Center, and while Eichinger's daughter-in-law helped the immigrant with her limited English, Joan Eichinger tended the baby.

Later came four months of weekly, sometimes twice-weekly, trips to the medical center for many tests, while doctors puzzled over Phuc (not her real name) and her symptoms. Finally, a rare kind of stress-triggered arthritis was diagnosed.

Strong doses of aspirin would eventually reduce and virtually eliminate the problem, but throughout the six-months-long illness, Joan Eichinger was Phuc's principal contact with the world, the one who took her to the hospital, helped care for her child and gave her emotional support.

"When I need something I call her, and she take me many times," Phuc said recently. "I have nobody else to help, only call her. And she just help me like she help her daughter, I think."

Telephone Greetings

Each Mother's Day, the telephone at Eichinger's house in Orange rings often with greetings and well-wishes from many admirers. Eichinger and her husband, John, an executive with 3M, have five children of their own, but that hasn't kept Joan Eichinger from "adopting" a number of Cambodian and Vietnamese refugees of her children's generation, as well as some older refugees. Many of the younger newcomers call her Mom.

In 10 years of volunteer work for the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops and the Catholic Immigration and Resettlement office of the Diocese of Orange, Eichinger believes she has touched the lives of upwards of 150 individuals she has seen "long enough so we would know each other." She has also had brief contact with several hundred others.

At present, Eichinger has three refugee families in hand--two single women with young children and one still-intact but troubled family to whom Le-Phuong Eichinger, Joan's daughter-in-law, has given many Sundays' worth of marital counseling.

The elder Eichinger tries to smooth the refugees' transitions to life in Orange County, and to young mothers she serves as a kind of role model, although, she says with a laugh, "I'm sure I'm not the perfect mother, so I wouldn't want them to model everything after me."

Grandmotherly Advice

Last Sunday, she paid an afternoon visit to Phuc. Almost before she had entered the young woman's room, Eichinger was asked her opinion on little Tom's bottom, which was red and looked inflamed beneath its diaper. "I think it's urine burn," Eichinger said judiciously, and helped smear a cooling ointment over the baby's skin.

Throughout the talk that followed, while a reporter asked Phuc questions about her past and current life and her relationship with Eichinger, the older woman inserted motherly and grandmotherly advice on child care.

All the while, Tom, now a year old, crawled about over the bed, over Phuc, over Eichinger, occasionally pausing to smile at one or the other. "When he see you, he very happy," Phuc told her friend.

Phuc did not want her true name published because she was afraid word would somehow reach her parents, who are still back in Vietnam, that she had borne a child without being married. "In my country we don't live together before we get married, and that this happened to me is very bad." she said, her soft brown eyes troubled.

Now in her early 30s, Phuc came to Colorado nearly three years ago from a refugee camp in Singapore, under the sponsorship of an uncle who was already in the United States. When the uncle died, she moved to Orange County.

Lonely and unsure of herself, she became involved with a man she believed was single. Not until she was pregnant did he reveal he was married. Phuc applied for admission to a home for unwed mothers but was turned down because she was over age 25.

The home, however, called the Catholic Conference, which referred her to Eichinger. That was almost two years ago. Now the father of Phuc's child is divorced and would like to marry Phuc, but she is not sure this would work out. The couple lived together for a while, until Eichinger helped Phuc find her present housing.

"I learn from her (Eichinger) a lot of things. And I think I very lucky to have Joan," Phuc said. "First time when the baby born I don't know anything. Joan, she brought everything, she brought shirt for the baby, bed for the baby . . . If I don't have her, I don't know what I do."

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