When she first arrived in Spokane in 2006, Dao Nguyen couldn’t look people in the eye. Badly burned as an infant, Nguyen had spent nearly a quarter century being shunned by the people in her small Vietnamese village. Her left hand was a bulbous stump and her face so badly disfigured she couldn’t open her mouth more than a sliver.
Then 24, Nguyen clung to her American host, Carolyn Walchak, hiding behind the woman’s arm.
Three years later, Nguyen is back in Spokane for her first visit since plastic surgeon Dr. Frank Walchak and his wife brought her here for medical treatment.
This visit, Nguyen is standing tall. She’s cooking and organizing dinner parties for her friends, swimming, shopping, answering the phone in fluent English, and smiling wide.
With the help of Carolyn Walchak’s Rotary Club and many medical associates, Nguyen, now 27, received a prosthetic hand and several surgeries so she could return to Vietnam and find work to help support herself and her elderly parents, a long-awaited dream.
“She stands tall, she walks tall. She just exudes self-confidence, where she’d had none before,” Carolyn Walchak said. “She really is a completely different person.”
The Walchaks, whom Nguyen calls her American parents, first met the young woman in 2004 while on a medical mission to Vietnam. Nguyen heard on a radio that some plastic surgeons were coming to another village 30 miles from hers.
Nguyen had lost her left hand as an infant, while her mother was warming her over a fire. She fell out of the hammock and was burned, the flames melting her fingers. Scar tissue formed a cocoon around her arm, leaving her unable to straighten her arm at the elbow.
Surgeons operated on Nguyen in Vietnam, but they knew she would need more treatment.
So, after months of red tape, she arrived in Spokane on Father’s Day 2006. During her nine months here, she was transformed from timid and childlike into a woman who wanted nothing more than to persevere under seemingly insurmountable odds. In Vietnam, people with disabilities are cast aside.
And persevere she has.
Nguyen now works for a travel agency writing foreign visas for Vietnamese citizens traveling to other countries.
“I love my job,” Nguyen said. Before her surgeries, Nguyen had never even left her village and had never been exposed to the modern world.
“There is no tolerance toward the disabled in her country,” Walchak said. “She would never have been respected enough to hold a job.”
Now Nguyen not only holds a job and helps support herself and her family, she wants to open her own business – possibly a grocery store, “so I can support myself,” and have employees so she could set her own schedule and be available for more charity work, she said.
Nguyen already volunteered as a translator with the same medical mission organization that helped her have a life she only dreamed of.
“Her mother is very thankful that she can make something of her life,” Walchak said. “She kept asking us how they could ever repay us, and we said the best way is to go and help somebody in need.”
Nguyen also continues to learn English, a skill she picked up while here in 2006. She works all day and then takes classes at night. She learned to drive here and now gets around on her own motorbike.
“We tried to give her every advantage when she was here,” Walchak said. “And it all fell on fertile soil; she understood that this was her chance for a better life, and none of that learning or the help she received was wasted.”
Nguyen has learned to knit with one hand, and she brought dozens of handmade scarves for gifts. After she returns to Vietnam today, she plans to take swimming lessons.
The Walchaks bought Nguyen a laptop computer, with the hope that she will be able to access academic courses online. It’s also a means to keep up frequent communication with her American family.
Right now she shares a 12-by-12-foot apartment with two roommates. She wants to work toward moving to a larger place, where she can eventually host seniors and children who don’t have a place to live.
“She really is proof that it’s a good heart that matters most of all,” Walchak said.