Mending a thousand broken hearts

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Claus Ruff (R) holds Vo Quoc Hung, the 1,000th beneficiary in his heart operation campaign, at Trieu An Hospital in Ho Chi Minh City. Courtesy photo

It was not easy for Claus Ruff to go around his home in Germany and collect money to help children with heart ailments in Vietnam.

People questioned the wisdom and propriety of looking too far away instead of helping those who need help right at home.

Ruff says he did not mean to favor Vietnam, but did have a soft spot for the country because of the long wars forced on it. It also occurred to him that a rising number of Vietnamese children that are being born with congenital heart defects could possibly be related to Agent Orange, an herbicide containing the highly toxic dioxin spread by US troops over Vietnam to clear forested areas and rural land.

"When a child needs us to save its life, then we have to help it. That is my philosophy," he said.

"If we cannot help it, it is an enormous sin."

Since he began helping Vietnamese children get heart operations in 2004, Ruff has been traveling to the country three times a year, staying for a month or so each time.

Last month, he was here to visit the 1,000th beneficiary of his initiative, Vo Quoc Hung, a 10-month-old boy living in a thatched house on a dirt road in the Mekong Delta's Tien Giang Province.

Hung's 20-year-old mother, known only as Nga, said the boy, who is her first child, started coughing regularly and had difficulty breathing when he was four months old.

A local hospital diagnosed him with some lung condition but all treatments failed, so they brought him to the Children's Hospital No.1 in Ho Chi Minh City where doctors said he had a heart disease.

Neither Nga nor her husband has a stable job, and they had to borrow money for the initial examinations, which cost them VND40 million (US$1,910). So when doctors said they had to pay a further VND80 million for a heart operation, they took the baby home. Vietnam's annual income per capita is around $1,400.

Nguyen Duc Manh, the founder of an orphanage in HCMC, heard about the case and contacted Ruff's "From the Hearts to the Hearts" campaign. Soon, Ruff visited the family.

Hung received a heart surgery at Trieu An Hospital in the city late last month.

Ruff's campaign has so far raised around $3.5 million, including his own money, for providing heart surgeries to needy Vietnamese children.

A member of the German private humanitarian group called Society of World Humanitarian Help, which has built schools and orphanages in Africa, Ruff said he might never started a campaign exclusively for Vietnam if a sick child had not been placed right in front of his eyes ten years ago.

He had visited Vietnam for the first time in 1996 under the society's project to build two orphanages for child victims of Agent Orange.

He returned in 2004 and during a boat trip along the Saigon River, saw a little girl breathing heavily.

"She was nine years old, half blind and undernourished," Ruff said, describing Pham Thi Kieu Trang.

He asked a German doctor in his group and learned that the girl had a critical heart condition.

He decided to bring the girl to a cardiology specialty hospital in HCMC and paid for the operation himself.

The girl was discharged after three weeks, and when Ruff returned to Germany, he set up "From the Hearts to the Hearts," a unique venture in Vietnam to date.

Ruff said he has no personal interest in the publicity that his campaign has gained through reports in the Vietnamese media, but they have helped connect him with several children in need.

The children live in the most remote and poorest areas of Vietnam, where "children's life is forgotten," he said, explaining that their poor parents have never owned a television or bought a newspaper to know what help is available to them in this world.

Ruff, who keeps a written record of the names and addresses of all the children that he has helped, has visited almost very family personally before deciding on whether to support their children receive heart surgery.

Many times, he has given more than planned after coming across families who "live below human dignity in poor straw huts covered by plastic sheets full of holes," he said.

The Society of World Humanitarian Help has provided him with money to build 64 houses so far for the children's families, each costing between $2,500 and $3,000, in Tien Giang and other provinces like Ben Tre, Dong Nai and Binh Thuan.

Last month, he handed over Hung's parents $3,000 to build a better house for the baby. Having a "cured heart" would not be so joyful if the baby has to continue crawling all over dirt floor and sleep in a house where the wind blows in through flimsy straw walls, he explained.

Phan Van Ha, chairman of the Poor Patients Welfare Association of Tien Giang, said the province has benefited most from Ruff's campaign, with the lives of 168 children saved. 

"Ruff is very careful about who he helps. The application is examined carefully and there's always someone coming to check the child's family conditions.

"He pays the operation fees directly to the hospital," Ha said.

Ruff says he is not a rich man, but his philosophy is to live by sharing.

"I have enough to eat. I have a house "¦ Why shouldn't I share? When I die, I cannot share," said the 70-year-old Samaritan.

He said he wants to continue the campaign for as long as he has the energy and receives financial support as well as the help of social workers and heart surgeons at specialized hospitals in Vietnam.

"My philosophy is that every child in the world has the right to good health, nutrition, water and sanitation, quality education, and protection from violence and exploitation," he said.

Ruff, the foster father of a Vietnamese girl, who is now married in Berlin, said: "There are thousands of heart-sick children in Vietnam"¦  I see them as my own children."

Without help, "they must die one day."

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