MANCELONA — The University of Michigan stepped forward with a gift of open heart surgery for Nguyen Duyen, a Vietnamese exchange student who has lived under a cloud of uncertainty and stress for months.
Nguyen, 17, feared she’d have to leave her host family in Mancelona, owing to the heart defect discovered in September. She recently learned that U-M’s C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital will pick up the medical tab. Surgery is scheduled for Dec. 13, and Nguyen’s mom will fly in from Vietnam next week to be with her, said Jody Garchow, her host mother.
“It was just so relieving that someone besides me realized this was a big deal and needed to be fixed, and we shouldn’t just push her home. That’s what I was getting from the exchange company. ‘Send her home. Send her home,’” Garchow said.
Garchow has been a fierce ally of Nguyen, a petite 17-year-old, who was unaware she had problems until a nurse heard a heart murmur during a routine sports physical.
Nguyen’s heart defect was diagnosed by Catherine Webb, a traveling U-M pediatric cardiologist. She said part of Nguyen’s heart is missing, and surgeons need to put that piece back.
The wall between Nguyen’s right and left atrium is missing, which is called an atrial septal defect, she said.
Soon after the diagnosis, CCI Greenheart, the company handling Nguyen’s exchange, insisted Nguyen return to Vietnam because its insurance policy didn’t cover her pre-existing condition. A CCI official later told a reporter the company believes it’s in the child’s best interest to return home to their parents in such situations.
But Garchow fought for her to stay in the U.S., fearing she wouldn’t receive adequate treatment in Vietnam. It turns out that U-M pediatric surgeon Richard Ohye agreed with her.
“They probably don’t have access to congenital heart surgery in Vietnam and certainly not to the level they have it here,” said Ohye, who will operate on Nguyen. “Sadly, it’s estimated that only 7 percent of the people in the world who need congenital heart surgery have access to it. The other 93 percent live with it or succumb to it.”
Ohye said symptoms include fatigue and increased respiratory infections. Long term, patients may develop pulmonary hypertension, a potentially fatal complication. U-M’s estimated donation is between $50,000 and $100,000, said Ohye, who sought out the funding.
“That’s a lot of money that the hospital is going to eat,” he said. “But in terms of charity, there is no need for charity surgery for a child from the United States. Any child who needs heart surgery can apply for insurance and receive it.”
In addition to seeking medical care, Garchow worked with Mancelona school officials to modify her visa, a complicated but necessary step after CCI ended its relationship with Nguyen. The company refunded part of the $12,200 fee that Nguyen’s parents paid for the exchange, Garchow said.
Garchow said Mancelona residents offered to donate food for a January fundraiser to pay for travel and other expenses. Along with supportive comments, she’s also heard from critics.
“They’re mostly from people who are older and not from our little town,” she said. “An older Kalkaska woman said, ‘There are kids in the U.S. who need help.’ I was like, ‘Yup. And if one was placed in my house, I’d do the same for them. I said I’d take care of (Nguyen) like my own, and I will.’”
Garchow said that Nguyen is nervous about the surgery, but looks forward to exercise and doing normal high school things. Now she’s easily drained by stress and tends to sleep when she’s not studying — and she studies a lot, she said.
Garchow’s web page can be found at www.gofundme.com/4uj7f8.