SINGAPORE: Trieu Hoai An’s tiny chest rose and descended gently with each breath, as loving hands cradled and rocked her ever so slightly.
“Little caterpillar,” cooed translator Hailey Vo.
The tiny baby, 30 days old on Wednesday (Apr 24), has endured more in her short time on Earth than most will in a lifetime. After being abandoned in a plastic bag on a tree, Hoai An - whose name means forever peace in Vietnamese - is fighting to stay alive.
LESS THAN A YEAR TO LIVE
In the early hours of Mar 29, a farmer at work in a coffee plantation heard soft cries nearby. Following the sounds, the farmer found a small plastic bag dangling from a tree branch, a tiny baby stuffed within.
The bag was almost too small to contain the baby, who had an open head wound, with maggots wriggling from her head, belly button, eyes and nose.
She was rushed to a local hospital in Da Lat, in the Lam Dong province of Vietnam, where doctors cleaned her wounds and removed the maggots.
The left side of her body was red and numb with abrasions, her skin hardened and almost scaly. On her right side, which was exposed to the elements, she was badly sunburnt.
The doctors in Da Lat estimated her to be only four days old, and said that she had likely been abandoned immediately after birth. Her head wound may have been caused by insect bites, which got worse as it was eaten away as she lay immobile.
She was diagnosed with hydranencephaly, an extremely rare condition which affects fewer than one in 10,000 births. A disorder of the central nervous system, symptoms include an enlarged head, infantile spasm or seizures, paralysis, blindness and fluid in the brain.
Doctors gave her a poor prognosis - she had less than a year to live.
The hospital quickly contacted Venerable Minh Tai, who rushed down. As the abbess of the Hue Quang monastery, she was known locally for her charitable efforts and had taken 10 orphans under her wing, from infants to teenagers.
“When I first saw her, my heart ached when I imagined the pain and suffering she endured, and tears started flowing from my eyes. I could not believe that a parent would do this to their own child,” said Venerable Minh Tai.
“All I could think of was finding a way to save her life, no matter the cost.”
There, the abbess named the baby Trieu Hoai An.
"I WILL DO WHATEVER I CAN"
Hospitals in Vietnam could not treat Hoai An. Reaching out to her network of charity organisations, Venerable Minh Tai was recommended and referred to Singapore’s Mount Elizabeth Hospital, which had the equipment and doctors with the necessary knowledge to save the baby.
People from all over Vietnam heard of Hoai An’s plight through social media, and hundreds donated to fund her treatment, moved by her story of resilience.
Among those was Phung Lu, who had been on a sightseeing trip in Vietnam. Phung, who is based in Florida, US, was born in Vietnam but moved to America when he was four years old.
The 28-year-old, who was travelling up from Ho Chi Minh City, came across Venerable Minh Tai’s vegetarian restaurant and she invited him to visit her monastery.
When he made his way there a few days later, he was informed the abbess was at the hospital. It was there he was introduced to Hoai An and her fight for survival.
“I was very hurt inside when I first saw her, because I’ve never heard of a situation like hers before,” said Phung.
“As the situation was right there in front of me, I felt obligated to do my best to help her. I may not be as much help as the nuns, but I’ll do whatever I can to help Hoai An survive. It’s worth it.”
The support for Hoai An grew, and people came together to help. The immigration department expedited the application process for Hoai An’s passport - what would normally take two weeks to a month was done in just two days.
“At first, I felt very lonely and lost, because I did not think anyone would find out about her story. However, as word began to spread on social media, people started calling, and donations began pouring in,” said Venerable Minh Tai.
With the aid of charity organisations, Venerable Minh Tai made the journey to Singapore with Hoai An, her disciple Thien Ngo and Phung.
Mount Elizabeth Hospital made special provisions for both the nuns to stay with Hoai An in a room in the children’s ward when they arrived in Singapore on Apr 10, while Phung sought out his own accommodation.
Neurosurgeon Dr Tang Kok Kee attended to Hoai An, cleaning her wound and draining her head of excess fluid, alleviating the pressure to make her more comfortable.
Hoai An’s hydranencephaly is the first such case in Mount Elizabeth Hospital, says a senior staff nurse.
ROAD TO RECOVERY
“The most difficult part of taking care of her was the first few days, when I could not sleep or rest because she cries a lot during the night,” said Venerable Minh Tai while cradling Hoai An.
The baby’s constant need for physical contact and crying through the night was due to the trauma of being abandoned at birth, the abbess said, adding that the presence of people calms the little girl.
Hoai An’s head wound requires daily medication, and seems to be healing faster than expected. Initial expectations set the recovery period at two months, but it has since shortened to one.
Her condition has visibly improved and Venerable Minh Tai updates her Facebook page daily with pictures of Hoai An to keep donors and supporters in the loop.
“I imagined myself in the baby’s place - all the pain and suffering she’s enduring.”
Hoai An has come a long way, said the abbess.
“If the doctor says the baby or the person will die tomorrow or one week later, we still do our best to help them live,” Phung explained.
“In many cases where science says there’s no hope or cure, we still take care of them. In a few cases, they survive and become healthy again.”
A 30-DAY MIRACLE
Hospital staff in Mount Elizabeth will hold a full-month party for Hoai An on Wednesday, marking a remarkable tale of determination and survival.
The celebration holds both cultural and spiritual significance, said Phung. When babies are a month old, prayers are recited over them for health and blessings by their parents.
Hoai An's room will be specially decorated for the occasion, with food cooked by hospital chefs.
Venerable Minh Tai smiled and explained she is both mother and spiritual guardian to Hoai An, and will stand in during the ceremony.
Nurse Adeline Jane added: “She’s grown chubbier and her voice has grown louder, she’s a beautiful girl and very lucky. When she came in she was dehydrated.”
“The special circumstances surrounding this little patient moved our nurses and staff so much that they came up with the idea to hold a small baby shower party to celebrate her full month,” said Dr Noel Yeo, CEO of Mount Elizabeth Hospital.
Venerable Minh Tai looked at Hoai An when asked about her prognosis. Despite the seemingly poor outlook, the abbess said she has resolved to take care of the baby for as long as she can.
“We nicknamed her Hoa Sen Da (Succulent plant),” said Venerable Minh Tai, placing Hoai An gently in her cot.
“Even if nearly the entire plant is gone, if one leaf is left, it can still regrow and become full again.
“Even if Hoai An has been through a great deal of pain and suffering, as long as she has a sliver of will to live left in her, there is hope.”