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Occupational therapist goes native to help special children in Vietnam

Takao Maiko, 27, plays with children at the Daycare class of the Ho Chi Minh City's Orthopedic and Rehabilitation Center for physical disabled children

"Open it, baby," Takao Maiko tells the seven- year-old polio-stricken boy in slow, but clear Vietnamese.

Nothing happens. The little boy grips her arms tight and keeps staring at the closed door of the classroom.

She bends down and speaks gently into his ear. "Come on, you can do this, son."

The boy reluctantly lets go of her arms, and standing unsteadily on his myasthenic legs, he grabs the door with one hand and uses the other to release the bolt. The whole activity takes a few minutes, and when the teacher and pupil enter the classroom, I see a wide smile shining on his thin face.

In a room of about 30 square meters, there are nearly 40 children aged two to 16, almost all of them suffering from severe muscular disorders, many of them from cerebral palsy, a condition that damages motor control centers of the developing brain. All of them seem to be having a good time with the help of their teachers.

Almost all of them. In one corner of the room, Le Anh Nhat Minh, the extra student, sits quietly in his wheelchair, waiting until Maiko takes notice of him.

Now 19, Nhat Minh is three years older than the class's age limit, but since the spastic boy did not want to leave the class he'd attended for 14 years, his parents asked the center to let him continue, and their request was granted.

Maiko greets Minh, and he responds: "How do you say "˜I'm tired' in Japanese?"

She tells him, but he is not done.

"So how do you write that?"

"It's too difficult to write that, dear", the Japanese teacher says, gently.

He clearly wants her attention.

"But I want to know it!"

Putting a hand on his bony shoulder, Maiko looks at him tenderly. "You want to tell me that you are tired, don't you?"

He nods.

"So let's play some games so that you will feel better, okay?"

So begins one of Maiko's classes.

With her special charges, none of Maiko's classes begins the same way.

Sometimes, a pupil welcomes her with nails scratching her arm, and she has to get her face "angry". She has to stop the boy, look directly at him and say firmly, "Stop it now, dear, it hurts me."

It usually works. But after a year of working at the center, Maiko has a fair share of grazes on her arms.  It does not bother her any, though.

"Most of the children here cannot walk or sit by themselves. Some even cannot speak or hear. They are the ones who are inconvenienced the most. My inconveniences are nothing compared to theirs."

At 27, Takao Maiko looks like a high-school girl in her grey T-shirt and dark blue sports trousers. While working at the Fukuoka General Hospital in Japan last year, Maiko chose to move to Vietnam to work for JICA as a healthcare volunteer for two years.

Given her expertise and experience in occupational therapy, she was chosen to work as a trainer and educator at the Ho Chi Minh City's Orthopedic and rehabilitation center for physical disabled children.

"At first, I couldn't help people much since I couldn't speak any Vietnamese and they couldn't speak any Japanese. We didn't understand each other."

She decided to start at a different level. She began helping Vietnamese workers with anything and everything they needed, from cleaning to tidying up small children and many other odd jobs. Her Vietnamese improved in leaps and bounds and now she can even hold a workshop by herself to share her experience and knowledge of occupational therapy with Vietnamese health workers.

Tran Thi Quyen, who works with the therapy department of the medical center, has nothing but praise for Maiko.

"She is very friendly and willing to learn, so she makes us willing to learn as well. She never minded doing odd jobs, and she used the chance to talk to us. We got to know each other quickly and when she could speak enough Vietnamese for us to understand her, she used it together with body language to show us Japanese knowledge in this field."

Since most of the patients suffer from cerebral palsy and myasthenia, the center has seen its biggest task as helping them to stand and walk to the extent possible, Quyen said. But Maiko thought other kinds of activities were important as well, and should be given more attention.

"When the children didn't have to practice walking, Maiko gave them color pencils and asked them to draw whatever they liked. We thought that standing and walking were the most important activities, and anyway, drawing would be much more difficult for them to practice," Quyen said.

"But the children were really interested and enjoyed the activity, though their paintings were just scrawls. And by doing this, their handling skills improved considerably."

Now, Maiko's days begin at 6:30 a.m., and she spends around four hours in the morning helping her little patients practice activities like drawing, arranging color blocks and playing with small toys. Her workroom at the occupation therapy department looks like a small playground with a tiny ball house, tables full of children drawing and playing, and several shelves stacked with colorful toys. At around 10 a.m., when the last little patient leaves, she moves to the daycare class to "play" with her "students" who will be there until 4 p.m.

However, not many of the children in class can play. Some of them can hardly move, especially the smallest ones that are around three years old. With almost 40 pupils and only four Vietnamese teachers, it's impossible to take care of them all at the same time. So the smallest pupils who cannot sit or stand are left lying down all the time, or were, till Maiko decided to do something about it.

"I saw the little children lying down even when eating, and during the daytime. All they could see was the ceiling. That was so sad.

"Then I found in the storage some chairs given by NGOs that are designed to help children sit straight very easily. These special chairs had been forgotten since they mostly need wheelchairs here. I began using these chairs to help the kids sit."

Since then, Takao has helped many pupils in her class sit by themselves.

Lan Huong, a JICA officer who is in charged of the healthcare department, says Takao's enthusiasm and zeal has moved her and many other people.

"Though sitting is not a big deal for most of us, it is actually a long way to go for others, and to go to sitting from lying is not just to turn your back but also to widen your view, from the ceiling to another, larger world."

For all this work, Maiko receives a small stipend just enough to meet basic needs. She lives in a small room inside the center, cooks for herself, and hand washes her clothes. For the young Japanese woman, this is not a problem. She is just a bit wary of the irregular water and electricity supply.

"I cannot read Vietnamese newspapers, so I don't know when the lights will go out or when the water supply will be cut off. Sometimes my bath is suddenly interrupted, or my work on the laptop disappears suddenly."

"But after spending a year here, I am getting acquainted with these things. I can say I have developed some clever skills here, somehow," she says, smiling.

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