Teacher brings new hope to young cancer patients

Every week, retiree Pham Thi Tot catches a motorbike taxi and heads out to Ho Chi Minh City's Oncology Hospital to teach maths and vocabulary to children in the paediatrics ward.
Every week, retiree Pham Thi Tot catches a motorbike taxi and heads out to Ho Chi Minh City's Oncology Hospital to teach maths and vocabulary to children in the paediatrics ward.

As part of the Thuy's Dream programme organised by Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper, Tot works on Friday and Saturday in a classroom set up in the ward five years ago.

Named after Le Thanh Thuy, who at age 19 died of cancer in 2007, the programme includes 10 volunteer teachers.

When it was launched, the lessons were using first-grade curricula, but last year, because of the success of the programme, they began offering lessons through the ninth grade.

With her warm voice and gentle manner, Tot patiently helps each child learn how to spell and write, and often arrives early to prepare notebooks and pencils for her "special students".

During teaching, if she senses that any child is tired or in pain, she will stop immediately. Sometimes, she spends her own money to buy small gifts for the children, such as hairpins or pens.

Fourteen years ago, Tot retired as a first-grade teacher at Phu Dong Primary School in the city's Binh Thanh district. At the time, she was diagnosed with a malfunctioning heart valve, and was often tired and would sometimes faint. "The condition made me depressed," Tot said.

One day, Tot read about the hospital programme. Inspired, she decided to contact a friend associated with the programme. "I gave up teaching because of my health problem, but these young patients still wanted to learn even though they had cancer, and their problems were worse than mine," she said.

Passion for learning

When Tot began teaching the class, she was amazed at the children's diligence, so much so that she decided to teach more frequently. "I admire their passion for learning," Tot said.

"My health became better after I began teaching them. The children gave me energy to live and caused me to have a more helpful life. I will stop teaching only if my health gets really bad."

As the children know they have limited time to learn, they are rarely absent from class but very attentive. Many of them sit in class with their arms attached to IVs that feed their bodies with special fluids or bone marrow.

Tot remembers that a seven-year-old boy, although very tired one day, begged her to allow him to continue to work on vocabulary. But she said no. At the time, she was not aware of how little time he had left.

Two days later, the boy passed away, unexpectedly. Before dying, he told his mother that he had regretted not knowing all the vocabulary that he had been studying. Tot said she still feels bad about denying his wish.

Despite her regrets, she is grateful for the children in the ward. "We hope that you can come the next time," is the refrain she often hears at the end of each class. And sometimes, they ask Tot if they can kiss her to express their gratitude.

Ngo Thi Thanh Thuy, the head of the hospital paediatric ward, said the children who later returned to school were able to keep up with their studies because of the programme.

"The teachers do it for no money, and it comes from the heart," she said.

One parent, Ta Thi Hue of central Binh Dinh province, whose five-year-old daughter has leukaemia, said that Tot and the other teachers were a welcome sight at the hospital.

"Thanks to them, my daughter understands more words. The class has brought joy and happiness to children at the hospital," she said.-VNA

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