It was not his turn to water the sprouts, but 48-year-old Pham Van Hong still went around the back garden to ensure that the spouts were watered and covered properly to protect them from the blazing summer heat.
“We have tried growing sprouts on sand for a few weeks instead of using baskets,” Hong said, taking the watering can and hunching to water the sprouts at the corner of the garden, then carefully removing the yellow leaves.
He looks much older and weaker than other men of his age. His hands are shaky and there are humps on his arms, which he explained are common to all patients with end-stage chronic kidney disease needing hemodialysis.
“The humps arise at the positions where the kidney dialysis machine connects with my body to remove waste and toxicities,” he said.
As a patient with end-stage kidney failure – his kidney did not work for ten years – Hong goes to the hospital three times a week for hemodialysis no matter the weather.
Holidays, including Tet, are no exception.
“My life has been attached to hospitals in Ha Noi,” he said.
Since he divorced and his only son moved in with relatives in their hometown, his house in northern Hung Yen Province has remained unused.
He currently rents a 6-8 sq.m room near the Agriculture Hospital in Ha Noi’s suburban Thanh Tri District, where he was treated on his first day in the city. The area, consisting of about ten makeshift rooms, is known as “Kidney Hamlet” because all the residents are patients with chronic kidney disease and their carers.
They are all farmers from other provinces including Ha Nam, Hung Yen, Ninh Binh and Thanh Hoa. As poor patients, they have 95 per cent of their treatment fee paid by Health Insurance. The other five per cent (VND400,000 (US$19) per month) they have to pay by themselves.
Each resident of “Kidney Hamlet” needs about VND2 million ($95) per month to cover accommodation, food, electricity, water and medicine. Hong joked that he and his neighbours consumed more medicine than rice.
The patients have to depend on their families to afford both life in the city and the fight against the disease.
Under the shadow of a milk flower tree, members of the hamlet gather around a tea table to talk about their health conditions, discuss newly-prescribed medicine or inform one another about work that they can do to relieve the burden on their families back home.
Hong, who has lived at the hamlet for the longest time, said almost all patients felt pessimistic about their future when they arrived because dialysis was regarded as a “holding measure” until a renal transplant could be performed.
They are too poor to think about renal transplants, but “the holding measure” pushes their families further into poverty.
“Healthy working people want time to relax, but we dying people want to work,” Hong said, explaining that doing something made him feel that he was not useless or a burden to his family.
He himself has tried working as a xe om (motorbike taxi) driver, wooden furniture polisher and street vendor.
“It’s never easy because of my poor health,” Hong sighed, recalling his twenties or thirties, when he sold music discs and could travel easily from the northern border province to southern HCM City.
He looks brighter when mentioning his current job – growing sprouts.
Three years ago, a monk from Pho Ninh Pogoda taught the residents of “Kidney Hamlet” to grow sprouts. Their first customers were Buddhist followers who sympathised with the patients.
Hong has been very active in mastering the technique, teaching other patients and seeking consumers for the products.
Le Thi Thanh, 64, of Ha Nam Province said that she felt better when she helped care for the sprouts, and that the pastime helped her forget her sickness and pain.
“It’s not difficult because we are born farmers,” Thanh smiled proudly, saying it was gratifying to hear neighbours call one other to water the sprouts or harvest them in the morning.
They sell about 20 kilos of sprouts every week, each kilo for VND50,000 ($2). A charity group is helping promote their sprouts, mostly among their acquaintances and via social networks, such as the Nhung hat mam xanh (Green Sprout) group on Facebook.
Their grey-walled boarding houses, which once had an air of sickness and depression, are now more vitalised with the colour of sprouts and baskets used for cultivation.
Hundreds of baskets are placed in orderly fashion in the front yard. The growers have used clothing to protect the sprouts from strong sunlight.
“We have yet to expect the sprouts to cover the cost of living in the big city and fighting the disease, but at least they help us make ourselves useful,” Hong said.
According to the Health Minister, Viet Nam has over 72,000 end-stage chronic kidney failure patients with 8,000 new patients each year. However, less than 10 per cent of them have their blood filtered to remove waste and help balance essential chemicals in their bodies. The other 90 per cent die.
At present, the country has 12 hospitals that can perform kidney transplant surgery. In the last 20 years, about 500 patients had their kidneys transplanted and most kidneys were donated by living people.
In 2008, the first kidney transplant surgery with a donation from a brain-dead patient was performed in Viet Nam but the number of such donations was still not enough, said Tran Ngoc Sinh, dean of the Kidney-Urinary Department of HCM City-Based Cho Ray Hospital.
At a recent conference about kidney donation after heart death, the Health Minister asked the hospital to conduct two-year research on kidney transplants from heart-dead donors. The method has been applied in other countries including Japan, Spain, England and Australia.