Kazuyo Watanabe may be the only non-celebrity to consistently draw crowds to Da Nang Airport.
Her well-wishers have traveled dozens of kilometers from the neighboring provinces of Quang Ngai and Quang Nam just to wave and give their thanks to the woman who has fought so hard for their cancer-stricken children.
Most of them are farmers from remote areas in the central region who come just to say hello to “mother Nhat” before she heads to Hue – or give thanks to the woman who helped keep hundreds of severely ill children in treatment at Hue Central Hospital.
Nhat, a nickname bestowed by the young recipients of her kindness and care, means “Japan.”
The slender, energetic 48-year-old works from early morning to midnight at the hospital doling out everything from small bars of soap to a system of modern medical equipment.
“Almost everything here, from the electric fan, the water jug, towels, tooth paste, tooth brushes and soap… were bought by mother Nhat,” said Le Minh Nhat, the father of a young patient, pointing around his child’s hospital room.
“When doctors told me that my daughter had leukemia three years ago, we fell into a total depression. Our only plan was to bring her home and just wait for her last day to come.
“After learning about our story, mother Nhat visited us every day and encouraged us; she'd stay and help us with whatever difficulties we met. She cared for our little child even better than her own mother.
“After seeing a total stranger treat our kid that way, we abandoned any thought of giving up. Thanks to that, my child has received 28 months of treatment here,” concluded the father.
Watanabe, the managing director of the Tokyo-based Asian Children's Care League (ACCL), has flown to Vietnam every three months since 2005 to manage and follow up her project of caring for and treating children with cancer.
She first came to the country in 1995 as a 28-year-old tourist.
Following her return, she decided to stay in Hue to teach Japanese and work for a project that supported street children.
One day, she learned that half the children being diagnosed with cancer at the Hue Central Hospital received treatment; the other were taken home to die.
The grim news inspired her to drop everything and dedicate herself completely to changing the situation.
In 2014, a number of national surveys showed that 95% of the children diagnosed with cancer at Hue Central Hospital received treatment, a surprising gain given that the 2005 rate was 50 percent.
Watanabe hasn't just tried her best to support the children’s parents, who often consider a cancer diagnosis tantamount to a death sentence. They have also mobilized sponsors to furnish modern medical equipment to the hospital's oncology ward.
“I want to bring the best healthcare technology in Japan to Vietnam to treat the kids here, since I know that cancer can be cured -- all we need is patience and hope.
“In Japan, there were many children who were totally cured after three years, and now they have grown up and become doctors or engineers. Therefore, whenever there are still children suffering from cancers in Vietnam, I and others will keep devoting our effort,” said Watanabe in an interview with Tuoi Tre newspaper.
The ACCL director, who stays in Hue for 15 days every three months, usually gives the keys to her rented room in downtown Hue to parents, whose children are staying in crowded hospital rooms, so they can take a short rest or a shower.
To catch cases of pediatric cancer early, she sends doctors to schools in the remote corners of the province to examine students who rarely have a chance to “see a single doctor.”
During long treatments which isolate the little patients from their daily lives, activities such as short picnics or small birthday parties, organized by Watanabe, “help lift our kids' spirits”, their parents said.
Last month, the Ministry of Health awarded Watanabe a medal for her continuous devotion to the young patients suffering from severe illness.
The single woman meanwhile granted herself another title, "a daughter of Hue," where she feels like the distant aunt of over a hundred children.