MANCELONA — Nguyen Duyen arrived in Mancelona in late August to attend school and learn English.
But a few weeks later the gentle, petite Vietnamese 17-year-old was diagnosed with a hole in her heart and told she must return to Vietnam. Since then her host mother — wanting her to stick with her dream — fervently took up her cause and found a legal way for her to stay the school year.
Now she is dealing with the biggest hurdle of all — the health care system.
Nguyen and her host mom, Jody Garchow, told their story at their modest home outside of Mancelona. Nguyen’s hometown is Ha Long, a city of 221,000 with soaring office buildings. Yet she loves the solitude of the woods of northern Michigan and has grown close to her host parents and four siblings.
Nguyen came to Mancelona through an exchange program called CCI Greenheart. Her parents saved for a year to pay $11,200 for a 10-month stay that included school and health insurance.
Shortly after school started, Nguyen took a sports physical to get on the cross country team and heard some shocking news.
“The nurse say there was something in my heart that’s not good,” Nguyen said.
Two days later, Garchow took her to Petoskey Heart and Vascular, which happened to be hosting a free clinic. Diagnostic tests showed a hole between two valves. About five days later, a University of Michigan doctor did an extensive electrocardiogram in Petoskey and broke the bad news in a two-hour conference with Nguyen, who used Skype to speak with her parents in Ha Long, while the doctor had a translator in Ho Chi Minh City on another phone.
Her mother told the doctor that Nguyen, born three months prematurely, weighed 3½ pounds at birth, but this was the first she knew of the defect. Soon afterward, CCI officials told Nguyen’s parents their daughter had to return home because of her pre-existing and congenital condition, which isn’t covered by its insurance policy.
“CCI said it has a ‘green heart’ and now I have a broken green heart. I don’t like them,” Nguyen said. “They made my mother cry.”
But Megan McGaughey of CCI said in such cases the agency believes it’s in the student’s best interest to go home.
“We really feel that the natural parents are best equipped to deal with the serious nature of this situation,” she said.
Garchow, who receives no money from CCI, wants Nguyen to stay for the better medical care here, especially in light of Vietnamese doctors missing the obvious defect for so long.
“My goal is, she came here legally to study, and she’s going to study,” she said.
She called the Immigration and Naturalization Service and learned Nguyen could stay if she changed her visa from a J-1 to an F-1. The INS also advised Garchow to file a complaint about CCI with the U.S. State Department.
The State Department contacted CCI, which agreed to refund 80 percent of the $11,200 fee and ended its relationship with Nguyen.
Garchow is now exploring where to get an MRI, which will reveal if Nguyen needs open heart surgery or a less-costly procedure. Nguyen is covered by her parent’s insurance, but it’s not clear if it will be accepted here.
Meanwhile, Mancelona High School officials are filling out a lengthy form for the F-1 visa.
Garchow fears the stress and heart defect are taking a toll on Nguyen, who is suffering chest pains and sleeps a lot.
“I’m worried, upset, sad and fear very bad,” Nguyen said.
In the past couple of days, Garchow set up a web page to raise money for Nguyen’s medical expenses and a Facebook page called “Duyen’s Story.”
“Duyen was smiling last night because she was reading all the nice comments to her on Facebook and she says people here are wonderful,” Garchow said.
Garchow’s web page is called “Duyen’s broken heart” at www.gofundme.com/4uj7f8.