One afternoon in early June when Hanoi was experiencing searing hot weather, she was at a hospital intensive care unit with her husband.
She leaned forward and with great effort lifted and set him down on his wheelchair. After lying on his back for many days, he began to get bedsores on his back and had to be transferred to another hospital to get treatment before doctors can perform the surgery.
“Let’s go to another hospital, Papa,” she says.
Svetlana Nguyen and her paralyzed husband, Nguyen Van Thang, at a hospital in Hanoi. Photo courtesy of Suzana Nguyen.
Quickly wiping the sweat from her forehead, the blond woman patted the hand of Nguyen Van Thang, her husband. Though he could not speak, he looked at her and made slight movements with his mouth. That made her very happy since it meant he was recovering.
It has been nearly 20 years since Thang fell ill and been unable to take care of himself. Svetlana seems to have gotten used to the fact they spend more time at the hospital than at home.
The 55-year-old says: “There are times when life comes to a standstill and I think I cannot continue any more.But then I look at my husband and children, and I get the motivation to keep going.”
Their love began in 1988 when they first met at the State Customs Service office canteen in Kiev, Ukraine, when Thang came there to use the service.
They got married two years later, and he decided to stay back in Ukraine instead of returning home as he had previously planned.
In 2000, he told his wife he and their nine-year-old daughter would move to Vietnam to find business opportunities while she and their two sons stayed back. The family was to reunite when he succeeded.
But a year later Svetlana was informed that her husband had had a stroke and was paralyzed.
“I cried like I had never cried before. I felt like it was a dead end. But then I told myself to make an effort and maybe a miracle will happen.
“No matter how difficult it is, we must make an effort. We are together when we are healthy, so we must be by each other's side when we are sick too.”
She bought a flight ticket and flew to Thang's hometown.
The couple’s wedding was held in 1990 in Kiev, the capital of Ukraine. Photo courtesy of Svetlana Nguyen.
Every day she gets up early to cook and then massages his limbs to help relieve stiffness because of lying in one spot for a long time.
Moving him into his wheelchair takes all her strength and several minutes each time, but she says if she does not do that he will get bedsores.
There were days when her husband and children would be sick at the same time, and she would be too tired to get up and instead lie in bed with tears running down her face. Then she would brace herself, get up and continue working since she knew the whole family relied on her.
In the last 20 years she has only returned home once to sell all their property, furniture, cars, and even her wedding ring to raise money for his treatment.
Without knowing Vietnamese, with a sick husband and three young children to raise, Svetlana would often feel God was too unfair to her. Some friends even advised her to return home to free herself from all this, but she would silently turn away.
“As husband and wife we live together for love. If I leave, who will take care of him?”
Thanks to her devoted care, Thang’s health gradually improved and after two years he was able to walk and use some objects.
Then their savings began to dry up, and so Svetlana decided to get a job. Thang's family gave her an apartment on Hanoi’s Ngoc Khanh Street, and she used one half to open a coffee shop in 2004.
She bought an old refrigerator, while friends donated sugar and coffee. Since she had no money to hire staff, her two older children, then in middle school, would spend half the day helping their mother sell coffee.
Occasionally, she invited compatriots and people who had studied in the Soviet Union to her shop and try her food.
They regularly praised it, and some suggested she should sell more dishes from her homeland, and a food menu gradually took shape.
As the place expanded, the quality of life improved for the five-member family.
Now the two older children are running a Russian restaurant in Saigon and the youngest son is studying in Canada.
“In order to pay for her husband’s hospital bills, she works non-stop. Last Easter there were days when Svetlana worked until 2 a.m.to complete orders for customers. She then headed to the hospital the next morning without showing any sign of fatigue,” Natalia, a Russian friend of the couple, said, adding she admired Svetlana for never giving up.
Svetlana Nguyen making loaves of traditional Russian black bread, a key ingredient in her the restaurant’s dishes. Photo by VnExpress/Hai Hien.
Though their life has improved, she still faces many hardships.
Over the past 20 years, Thang has been admitted to hospital dozens of times, several times with life threatening conditions.
Unfortunately, in February this year he suffered from heart failure and cerebral hematoma, and was about to undergo surgery. He then had a stroke right at the hospital, and paralyzed again.
But with Covid-19 resurging at the end of April family members are not allowed to enter the hospital to take care of him.
“I’ve always believed he will get well one day,” she said.
Since the children are away, she has to take care of everything when her husband is in hospital. Every day she wakes up at 5 a.m., visits her husband and then returns to the restaurant to prepare food for customers.
She goes back to the hospital when she is free, and then returns to the shop to work until midnight.
For more than a month Hanoi banned indoor dining at restaurants due to Covid, and so she barely earned any money. To pay the hospital bills, she asked her children for help and borrowed money from people around her. But the words “give up” never crossed her mind.
She has never given up the hope that one day her husband will get better and the two will return to Kiev, where many years ago they met and fell in love.
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