Stuck on the night shift

By Vu Phuong Thao, TN News

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At age 69, Thai Ngoc, who claims not to have slept in 38 years, takes advantage of his wakefulness to help his wife with housework.

It is the middle of the night in Quang Nam Province.
A bright moon illuminates a field in Trung Ha Village, where a lone farmer works his field.
He casts a long shadow in the pale glow, as he swings the hoe in a slow rhythm.
At around 3 a.m., Thai Ngoc, 69, decides its quitting time and heads home to his thatched, bamboo home. He pops his head into the chicken coop, and checks on his rice wine still, before heading inside.
By the time the cock crows, at 4:30 a.m., he has prepared breakfast for his wife, Nguyen Thi Bay, and six children all of whom are still asleep.
At the crack of dawn, Ngoc launches in to his morning exercise, after another sleepless night.
Ngoc claims his life has been this way since 1973, when a powerful fever left him unable to sleep.
For Ngoc (aka Hai Ngoc), sleep is like an old friend that he hasn't seen in almost 38 years.
The good life
When most people hear about Ngoc's endless insomnia, they pity him.
But he counts himself lucky in his eternal wakefulness.
He's enjoyed a long, healthy life and, he says, he's managed to accomplish twice as much as he would have done had he needed to sleep.
Five years ago, Thanh Nien profiled Ngoc in a story entitled Nguoi dan ong 33 nam khong ngu (The man of 33 sleepless years). Every day, the reporter noted, Ngoc hauled two 50kg sacks of manure four kilometers to his house.
"At first, my family and I worried about the impact it would have on my health," he said. "I tried everything to be able to sleep again. I went for check-ups at Da Nang Mental Hospital; I drank traditional Vietnamese medicine, tonic, wine, and I even took sleeping pills. And yet, I could never asleep."
According to his physicians, Ngoc seems to be in perfect health, save for slightly diminished liver function.
Lately, he has felt a bit out of sorts weary, according to one report. Another source said he complained of "grumpiness."
On a recent visit, however, he made no mention of any bad humor. Lately, he said, his eyesight is dimming.
To his surprise, a healthy dose of rice wine has sufficed to knock him out for half an hour at a time.
No scientists have had the chance to closely study Ngoc's condition, but one Dr Vikas Wadhwa at Sleep Services Australia told the Epoch Times that Ngoc may have lost the ability to distinguish between wakefulness and sleepless-ness. Wadhwa told the paper that Ngoc may be sleeping for minutes at a time, without knowing it.
"There are documented cases (actually studied in sleep labs) of individuals who sleep very little (say 15 min or less per 24 hours)," wrote Dr. Michael H. Bonnet, director of the sleep laboratory at the Dayton Veterans Affairs Medical Center, in an email.
"I think that it is certainly possible that this gentleman may have had brain damage associated with his fever that may have greatly reduced his ability to sleep."
"I could not bear to lie awake in bed all night, so I spent my evenings doing extra farm work after resting for a while," said Ngoc.
Some nights he simply guards his property. On other occasions, he does heavy labor. Ngoc dug a pair of massive fishing ponds while everyone in his village as asleep.
He's not the only one who has found a way to appreciate his condition.
"I have never seen Ngoc sleep," said Vu, a neighbor. "As a result, he's volunteered to stand watch at local wakes and beat the ceremonial drum all night. He also helps rouse his fellow commune members for work during the sugar-cane planting and sugar producing seasons."
Open door policy
Since Thanh Nien first profiled him, Ngoc says his insomnia has brought in a flood of friendly visitors, curious to try to prove or disprove his condition.
Ngoc claimed that he's since forgotten all their names (and lost all their business cards), but neighbors say there were, indeed, a number of foreigners asking after the sleepless farmer.
Ngoc drawn attention from both local and foreign media including publications from as far away as the US and Australia.
"I received a lot of visitors and let them stay with me while they filmed," said Ngoc.
Their presence didn't bother him, he said. Instead, he was happy to have someone to talk to during the long nights.
The first to arrive at his door, he says, was a team of Thai researchers, who set aside an entire week to verify the Thanh Nien story.
The group began by asking Ngoc to take a memory test. They numbered his furniture from 1 to 9, then hid everything from him.
He found every item, and recounted its assigned number, without faltering in any way.
After Ngoc aced the first test, the crew set up cameras inside and outside his home to record his activities, 24 hours a day.
After a few sleepless days, they asked Ngoc to lie down in a room with an ambient noise machine. The old man couldn't so much as close his eyes.
Before departing, the team offered him an opportunity to seek free medical treatment, in Thailand.
Ngoc politely refused.
"I'm used to living like this," he said. "I can do extra work for my family and community thanks to my sleepless nights. Also, what about my wife? Who will provide for her while I'm getting treated in Thailand?"
Soon there were British and Australians travelers at his door. They each conducted their own tests and surveillance efforts, to no avail.
Finally, Ngoc says, an Australian filmmaker asked him to participate in a documentary feature film. He said the project would take 18 months and he would be required to refuse any and all requests for interviews from other media sources.
They offered the old man VND30million (US$2,200 at that time) for his time.
The offer was considerable, for a poor farmer like Ngoc. He says the sum would have allowed him to build a new house. But he refused.
"I am a man who likes his freedom," he said. "In addition, I don't want to turn away people, who have traveled halfway around the world to see me."

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