Doctors have yet to identify what prompted a rapid-aging process in 23-year-old woman who now looks 70
Nguyen Thi Phuong (L), 26, looks about 50 years her senior due to a strange rapid-aging affliction that began in 2008
Nguyen Thanh Tuyen's love for his wife never faded as he watched her youthful beauty crumble over a period of just a few days.
It was three years ago, in 2008, when the carpenter's 23-year-old-wife's appearance began to fade into middle age. Wrinkles and saggy skin took over her face and within months she appeared a septuagenarian.
Nguyen Thi Phuong's condition has only gotten worse since. She turned 26 on January 2 this year, but one could easily be forgiven for mistaking her for 80.
The story of the husband and wife in the Mekong Delta province of Ben Tre grabbed headlines over the past week as the poor couple agreed to talk to the media for the first time and ask for help.
Some have argued that the condition is lipodystrophy "“ a rare syndrome that causes a layer of fatty tissue beneath the surface of the skin to disintegrate while the skin itself continues to grow at a startling pace.
The syndrome with no cure leaves its victims with loose folds of skin all over their bodies, wrinkled faces and the gaunt features of people decades their senior. The condition is rarer than rare: among seven billion people on the planet, only 2,000 are thought to have lipodystrophy.
Showing several photos of a beautiful 21-year-old young woman on her wedding day in 2006, Phuong said the girl was herself: "Five years ago, I was rather pretty and not so ugly like this, right?"
Phuong said she is allergic to seafood and that she had a particularly bad reaction in 2008.
"I was really itchy all over my body. I had to scratch even while sleeping," she said.
Phuong said she took some medicine bought at a local pharmacy instead of going to the hospital because her and her husband Tuyen, now 33, were too poor to afford it.
"After one month of taking the drugs, I became less itchy but hives remained on my skin.
A photo of Phuong taken when she was 21
"Then I switched to traditional medicine and all the hives disappeared, together with my itching. However, my skin began to sag and fold," she said.
Phuong then took another kind of traditional medicine to treat her rapid-aging skin problem to no avail.
The couple doesn't remember what medicine it was or which pharmacy they got it from.
"We considered that our destiny and quit treatment in 2009," she said, adding that she always wears a face mask whenever she goes out.
"The skin on my face, chest and belly have folds like an old woman who has given birth several times although I have never had a child," she said, adding that the rapid-aging syndrome hasn't affected her menstrual cycle, hair, teeth, eyes and mind.
Love knows no age
In 2010, the couple migrated to the southern province of Binh Phuoc's Bu Dop District where they rent a small wooden house.
Tuyen continued to work as a carpenter while Phuong got a job at a cashew-nut processing factory. Both earn a total of VND3 million (US$144) a month, which doesn't allow them to afford an examination at a major hospital in Ho Chi Minh City.
Tuyen said his wife's disease hasn't affected his love for her or their relationship.
"I married Phuong when she was a beautiful woman. I have followed her through her disease and have never been shocked at all.
"It's not easy to tell everything about one's own marital affairs. Just simply understand that I still love her very much," he said.
Meanwhile, her husband's love has been the main reason Phuong continues to persevere in the face of adversity.
"He still loves me like before despite the fact that I look old and ugly. With him, I feel more confident to live and work," she said.
On October 2, doctors from Nguyen Dinh Chieu Hospital in Ben Tre Province said they would examine Phuong for free and send her to the HCMC Dermatology Hospital if they failed to diagnose her condition.
Meanwhile, recent stories about Phuong in the local media have prompted a variety of diagnoses from local doctors. Many of them do not believe that Phuong has lipodystrophy, saying instead that Phuong may be suffering the side effects of too much corticoid.
They said Phuong might have taken low quality traditional medicines that are often secretly spiked with corticoid to quicken and improve patients' responses to some treatments. But corticoid often has dangerous side effects later.
Doctor Vo Thi Bach Suong of the HCMC University of Medicine and Pharmacy said Phuong was a rare case but was not suffering from lipodystrophy, which is usually found on younger patients.
"She might have taken corticoid for a long time," she said. "Many traditional pharmacists use corticoid in their medicine, leading to side effects like swelled face and abnormally-growing skin sections."
Nguyen Hoai Nam, another lecturer at the university, agreed that Phuong may suffer from the wrongful use of corticoid.
"A sudden stop in using corticoid could easily lead to Cushing Syndrome, which is clearly seen through affected skin," he said.
However, doctor Huynh Huy Hoang of the HCMC Dermatology Hospital doubted that Phuong was suffering from the side effects of corticoid.
"It's really strange. This is the first time I've heard of such a case of rapid-aging process on an adult. It's not lipodystropy syndrome.
"However, aging is not a common sign of Cushing Syndrome either," he said.
Doctor Yen Lam Phuc of the Vietnam Military Medical Academy agreed with Hoang, saying this rapid aging process could not be the side effect of a medical substance. "It could be a totally new syndrome," he said.
Tuyen said that he and his wife dared not have a child, even though they've been married several years, because their lives are still difficult.
"Our only wish is to have some philanthropists or doctors help my wife to have her normal face again," he said.
Doctor says can reserve ageing process
Doctor Hoang Van Minh from the Ho Chi Minh City Medicine and Pharmacy University Hospital claims that Nguyen Thi Phuong, who suffers an abnormal aging affliction, can get back part of her previous beauty.
Minh visited Phuong Tuesday at her house in the Mekong Delta province of Ben Tre and after some simple tests, he posited that the 26-year-old woman has Mastocytosis, a rare disorder caused by the presence of too many mast cells.
There is currently no cure to Mastocytosis but there are many medicines to help treat its symptoms.
Minh said Phuong's face still swells and she is itchy with frequent diarrhea, which are common signs of the disease.
"However, she needs to be treated for her allergies first," he told Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper.
As for the saggy skin on her face that makes her look old, Minh said his treatment plan could restore between 50-70 percent of her skin to normal and laser therapy could reduce the folds.
Minh said there should be more tests to verify his initial diagnosis and find any other diseases she might have for premium treatment, adding that he is 90 percent certain that Phuong has Mastocytosis.
For some, childhood is often recalled with sweet memories and nostalgia. But it may be the most sorrowful thing for 50-year-old Do Qui Dan.
Do Qui Dan, 50, inexplicably has the appearance of a 12-year-old boy
Dan often plays with children in the neighborhood. When each generation grows up, he then finds new kid-friends.
It's not only because he loves children but because the quinquagenarian man owns the body and face of a child.
Born to a poor family in the Mekong Delta province of Ben Tre, Dan's strange symptom developed at 12 and hindered his body's development.
Since then, his height has remained unchanged at 90 centimeters and his face has barely changed.
Dan has been examined several times but doctors failed to diagnose his disease. They say he is not afflicted by common ailments coming from either dioxin or Down syndrome.
Owning the body of a 12-year-old child, Dan is timid and has a sorrowful look. He only plays with local children and always stays away from strangers.
Nguyen Thi Ngoc Mai, chairwoman of Vinh Binh Commune's Red Cross Agency said Dan had been examined by doctors on charity missions to the rural locality over the past several years but none could diagnose his disease.
Dan is living with his 70-year-old mother and they rely on meager support from Dan's farmer siblings, she added. (By Thanh Dung)