After 20 Years,
I could See!
n early 1968, violent explosions and gunfire echoed in the streets of Hue City as the old imperial capital of Vietnam plunged into one of the longest, bloodiest battles of the Tet Offensive. Even two decades later, the scars of war remained. But on May 16, 1988, the sounds heard by one family in Hue City were the welcome first cries of a newborn baby girl: Tram Nguyen.
Weeks and months passed. When Tram was about a year old, a dog bit her. The animal died two days later, possibly of rabies.
“Doctors told my parents that I’d need to have shots to save my life,” Tram says. “But medical technology was still limited in Hue City at the time. The shots could potentially cause permanent sensory damage, such as deafness or blindness.”
Tram’s parents had no choice but to go forward with the treatment, and they breathed a sigh of relief when there weren’t any noticeable side effects in the months that followed.
Then, one day in kindergarten, little Tram fell from third-floor stairs, landing on the first floor and breaking both arms and a leg. The cause of the accident was her poor vision.
“At that point, we knew I couldn’t see well. An eye doctor said I was legally blind with congenital cataracts,” Tram recalls. “To this day, I’m not sure if I was born with cataracts or if it was due to the rabies treatment.”
Between the ages of 6 and 16, Tram had eight surgeries to correct her vision, but none of them helped.
“Various doctors from France, America and Italy would come to Vietnam on mission trips. Whenever a group came into town, my mom and dad would sign me up. During one operation, I nearly died. I was about 9 years old and went into a coma for three days,” Tram says.
By the time Tram turned 16, she and her family had lost hope that she’d ever be able to have good vision. Tram, a Catholic, had a crucifix bracelet she’d carried since she was 4. At that age, she’d learned how to say prayers. Now, she looked at the bracelet and felt herself giving up on asking God for help. It seemed He wasn’t listening.
A FATHER’S DREAM
As Tram completed elementary school and moved through high school, her father knew that her future and career options were quite limited in Vietnam.
“It was always my dad’s dream to ship me to America,” Tram says. “He saw that if I wanted to attend medical school, I couldn’t do that in Vietnam. He saved money year after year so that I could travel to the United States on a student visa after I finished high school.”
The dream came true. Arriving in the United States, Tram studied English in Houston for a year before being accepted as a student at the University of New Mexico. However, despite wearing very thick and heavy glasses, her poor vision remained an ongoing challenge. Some days she couldn’t see well enough to complete her schoolwork. Reading was difficult at best. And she couldn’t get a driver’s license because she failed the vision test.
“I began to realize something,” she says. “I could give up on hope, but I couldn’t give up on God. I began to pray again every single day for an opportunity to meet someone who could bring me 20/20 vision.”
A SHOCKING DISCOVERY
Though Tram didn’t know it at the time, help was on the way. An eye exam in Albuquerque revealed a significant reason for her poor vision.
“The doctor was so quiet during the exam process,” Tram says. “She didn’t tell me anything at first but kept looking and testing. Finally, she broke the news. ‘Do you know you don’t have any lenses in your eyes?’ she asked.”
When the natural lenses of Tram’s eyes were removed in Vietnam during the procedures she’d had there, they had not been replaced with artificial lens implants, so a large part of her eyes’ focusing power was gone.
“No one had told us,” Tram says. “I was shocked. My parents were shocked. I didn’t know what to do next.”
RAYS OF HOPE
Tram’s friend, Chuck Merickel, suggested contacting Pacific Cataract and Laser Institute (PCLI). He knew Dr. Robert Ford, the owner of PCLI, having lived near him and attending the same church in the small Washington community where PCLI was founded. In fact, Chuck gave Tram an old printed copy of PCLI’s Pacific Visions newsletter that featured young sisters whose vision Dr. Ford had surgically restored.
So, on June 30, 2009, Tram began writing a letter to Dr. Ford.
“Dear Dr. Ford: Hue City, Vietnam, became my home on May 16, 1988,” she wrote as she continued the story of her childhood, the dog bite, her accident, and eye surgeries that had removed her lenses and failed to give good vision.
“I would love an opportunity to have lens implants,” she continued. “My status as a student does not give me a green card or the privilege to work, and my resources are very limited.”
Signing the letter, Tram sealed it in an envelope and dropped it in the mail. It was difficult to have much hope, and she didn’t have money for the procedures. Still, reaching out seemed worth a try. She was surprised when an answer came back from Dr. Ford saying he wanted to see her in the newly opened PCLI office in Albuquerque.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Tram says. “Within just a few months of writing the letter, my eyes had been carefully examined, and I was ready to have a lens implant operation on one eye. The next month, I had the procedure done on the other eye.”
A WHOLE NEW WORLD
Tram’s outlook changed almost overnight.
“The day they removed the bandage from my eye, I just started to cry,” she recalls. “I was able to see 20/20 for the first time in my 20 years. Words couldn’t begin to express my happiness! Now I had a chance at a future. I could do things I had only dreamed of before.”
Tram didn’t want to waste even a moment in idle time.
“I wanted to go all in,” she says. “I wanted to become this. I wanted to become that. Now there seemed to be endless possibilities. I went to nursing school during the day. At night I went to beauty school. I had to make up for lost time.”
In the process, Tram was also making good on a promise to Dr. Ford.
“Because he gave my vision back to me, I said I would return his favor. I wanted to use this gift of eyesight to help unfortunate people. I became a registered nurse in 2014 and began working for Presbyterian Healthcare Services in Albuquerque. Soon I was board-certified in several specialties and also became a licensed beautician and nail technologist,” she says.
In the hospital, Tram found special fulfillment in providing post-op care and pain management.
“It’s so meaningful to be part of healing people emotionally and physically as they recover from surgery. Sometimes patients ask why they are in so much pain. They don’t feel like they can take much more, and they want to give up. I tell them, ‘Don’t! I’ve been at that point of giving up too, but just keep going.’ And I share my story with them.”
Tram at her first communion. Even with very thick glasses, her vision was poor.
Despite poor vision, Tram was an excellent student.
The ability to see well transformed her life!
The day the bandage came off Tram’s eye, she started to cry. Lens implants had restored her vision and opened a chance at a future for this young woman from Vietnam.
Recently, Tram had an opportunity to see Dr. Ford again, and she had something to give him—the tiny crucifix bracelet she’d had since childhood. She wanted him to have it along with her prayer for his safety so he could continue blessing people with better vision.
“Some people take their eyesight for granted,” Tram says. “Not me. I treasure what’s been restored to me. Now that I have this physical eyesight again, it’s changed my mentality—I can also see my future, reach my goals and give back.”
“Some people take their eyesight for granted. Not me. I treasure what’s been restored to me.”
A Patient's Story
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