The Resurrection of Thu Ha Ngo
By Jean Torkelson ,News Religion Writer
PRAY FOR THE VICTIMS; PRAY AGAINST THE PERPETRATORS
Ngo before the September 1997 attack that left her disfigured. "I was
beautiful and smart and had almost everything.," she says.
"The heat of summer was gone," she recalled of that September morning in 1997. "It was cool and it felt so good, and I was young and had hope and the future was in front of me."
The next moment, she was assaulted in so hideous a way that dying seemed easy.
Today, the 25-year-old Thu Ha is a living Easter message of the power of good to overcome evil. She attributes her healing to God's ability to transform her life -- and through her, to change the lives of others.
"People are touched by her spirit," says Dr. Craig Reynolds, a Denver area plastic surgeon. Knowing Thu Ha, he says, "I started to wake up spiritually -- I discovered people are so much more than their parts, so much more than I thought them to be."
Thu Ha's silvery laugh and graceful tumble of English -- a language she mastered in just three years -- enchants those she meets at Regis University, where she studies chemistry, and at Marycrest Retreat and Conference Center, where she lives.
"Everybody who meets her goes away with something," says Marycrest Development Director Mary Jo Gowin.
Even Thu Ha didn't know the person she would become. Her journey began the day the first Thu Ha died.
That morning, two teen-age boys sped by on a motorcycle. One aimed a bucket of liquid at her. She felt hot. "It smelled awful."
She had been coated with acid. Head, face, body. The boys fled. She collapsed on the pavement, her beautiful face obliterated.
She was the victim of a common crime in Vietnam.
"It is a crime against women -- and a stigma," says Diana Bich Nga Miller, a Denver attorney born in Vietnam. "If you happen to be beautiful, bubbly, outgoing -- and, say, you turn a boy down for a date -- he can hire someone for $20 to throw acid at you."
She was blinded temporarily and had third-degree burns over more than half her body. Thu Ha never knew who she had offended. Her standout beauty alone may have aroused the savagery.
Her tormenters vanished. But a new world of people were moving into Thu Ha's life.
But not yet. For months, she lay in darkness in her parents' home, butchered by crude surgeries. "I felt I was filleted alive."
She had been the pampered and cherished daughter of educated Catholic parents who doted on her.
"I was beautiful and smart and had almost everything," including the nearly realized dream of a medical degree. Now all was lost in the misery of pain and disfigurement: "Even my little brother was terrified of me. I banged my head against the wall trying to commit suicide. I lost my faith. Where was God?"
Thu Ha would come to believe that long before evil targeted her, a merciful God had set in motion a way to turn evil to good.
Five years before, she had enrolled in a course called "Understanding America," taught by two visiting Coloradans -- Miller, a native of Haiphong, and Peter Warren, a dean at the University of Denver.
In late 1997, a former student e-mailed Miller that Thu Ha had been disfigured in an acid attack. Could the Americans help?
When Miller saw the photographs of Thu Ha's ravaged face, "I cried."
She remembered Thu Ha as one of their brightest and most energetic students.
Miller and Warren went to work. They enlisted Reynolds, a 51-year-old plastic surgeon with a poet's heart who they knew had donated his skills in the past for hardship cases.
Regis University offered Thu Ha free courses toward a chemistry degree so she can qualify for an American medical school after she graduates in 2002.
A Vietnamese Catholic nun found her a home at Marycrest, where she lives in the sisters' wing, her room decorated with Vietnamese folk art, stuffed animals and photographs.
Her parents could not get visas, so her new life would depend on strangers, including a group of nuns, a university of breezy Americans and a medical team of eye and reconstructive surgeons whose best gift to her would be years of painful procedures.
"Spirit puts us together sometimes in very unusual circumstances," says Reynolds, lead surgeon on the reconstructive team. "I think God wanted us to be here for Thu Ha -- and God wanted her here for us."
Thu Ha's journey would set Reynolds on a journey of his own. Much of his usual practice is correcting the assaults of age and disease. Now all his skill was needed to minimize horrific injuries. He was making changes in his own life, too:
"I had been a real aggressive male, a really ugly human at times in my life. And I couldn't make religion work."
A few weeks before Thu Ha's attack, Reynolds mother died, leaving him with a strong intimation of the divine. When Thu Ha arrived, Reynolds says he sensed that God, whom he often calls "Spirit," had arranged the meeting.
"I think this is the hand of God," says Reynolds. Since meeting Thu Ha, he has begun acting on his instincts to combine Eastern and Western techniques and philosophies in his practice. "This woman's soul is huge. She has a way of unlocking the door to other people's hearts."
"All my life I've been into looks," says his office manager, Ginger Liljestrand. "I had always struggled with my weight. Thu Ha has helped me understand this is a shell we carry around, and the true person is on the inside."
"I expected her to be defeated and bitter," says Thu Ha's adviser, Kim Berley Waldron, chair of the chemistry department at Regis University.
Instead, she saw an inquisitive student who haunted her office, wanting to improve, "and absolutely determined to catch up."
Thu Ha's enthusiasm restored Waldron's own love of teaching, and Thu Ha's spirit impressed her. If Thu Ha was in pain, "we never saw it. A lot of students (complain) when they break a toe. Here she's had these radical surgeries, and we don't know about it."
Nor did they know that at night, Thu Ha would clutch her crucifix and pray while looking at a picture of a bloody Jesus on the cross: "He didn't do anything, and he was crucified; I didn't do anything either, and I suffer, too."
She dreamed of the boys who flung acid at her. In her dream, she tried to fling it back at them. Healing, she agonized, "is taking so long, and not just physical stuff -- what does forgiveness mean? I have to give up the way I hate."
Sometimes at night, Sister Rosemarie, 83, would peek into Thu Ha's room to see if she needed help. During the day, the elderly nun would gently try to draw out the shy newcomer with ice cream and tea.
All the while, the nun marveled at the young woman's "winsome disposition" in the face of pain and initial loneliness. As she recovered from the first of many surgeries, Thu Ha began to build panoramic miniatures of her native Vietnam, creating exquisite villages out of discarded materials such as twigs, plastic and string. The professional-quality tableaux are now part of a treasured Marycrest display.
Today, the Marycrest staff chuckle at how the doorbell is constantly ringing for the once-shy newcomer. Thu Ha enjoys taking her ever-widening circle of American friends to Vietnamese restaurants, where she can get some home-style cooking and "I can teach my friends how to use chopsticks."
"When I hear her in the hallways -- she's always very busy, and friends are coming all the time -- I'll stop and bug her," says Gowin. "To be around her makes me feel good."
"I get emotional at her courage," says Sister Rosemarie. "She's strengthened my faith, and helped me see how God works in people -- that if we hold on to his hand, he will pull us through."
Thu Ha herself is surprised at how she was able to triumph over her despair. In the chapel, she says she reached out to Jesus and found healing, faith and the power to forgive.
"My Lord, my cross is nothing compared to yours," she wrote one year after the attack, on one of her own, delicately handmade cards."I pray for a world without sins."
The time came when she dreamed of flinging acid back on her attackers -- but could not.
Now her dream, still in progress, is to become a genetic researcher and biochemist, specializing in cloning skin for burn victims.
"This has been a true journey," she says. "I thought my life before the burn was perfect, but it's much bigger than before. Now I have a passion to give back to society and to think about other people. It is a gift. I paid for the lesson, but it was not too expensive."
To those she's met, Thu Ha's gift of self has been priceless.
Sister Rosemarie recalls the day she was chatting with a resident of the Marycrest complex. Thu Ha happened to pass by "and I said to the man, `You know, she used to be very beautiful.' And he said, `She still is.' "
Contact Jean Torkelson at (303) 892-5055 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Herald Tribune May 7, 2001
ASSOCIATED PRESS ORLANDO
-- Jannatul Ferdous traces her slender finger gently and slowly over the
scars that have disfigured her face and marred her spirit. Splashed with
acid by a rejected suitor in her native Bangladesh, Jannatul, 16, came to
Orlando nearly a year ago for free plastic surgeries. She hoped to
turn back the clock and look once again like she did before that
horrifying night of pain. After four operations, she is going home next
month with some improvement but little happiness. She doesn't look the way
she did before. She never will.
Jannatul, the ugly scars on her face extend deep into her soul. Her life
has changed forever -- she doesn't feel like the same person she was
before. "I don't want to go anywhere or do anything. What
for?" she said through an interpreter. "No one will accept me.
It doesn't matter what I do." She was sleeping when her attacker came
quietly to her home in late 1999. He had professed his love to her again
and again. At 25, he was too old for her. She ignored him many times. She
plainly said "no." She had no warning, no hint of his revenge.
He said nothing. He cut through the bamboo wall of her room and tossed
in his destructive potion. She awoke with her face on fire. "I say,
'Mom, my face hurts!' My mom came in. Screaming."
was the beginning of a journey through hell. She received skin grafts in
hospitals in her homeland, but the doctors weren't equipped to do the
intricate work of reconstruction.
became one of the lucky Bangladesh girls who would be chosen for surgery
in the United States. Acid attacks are common there. Her care was arranged
by the Florida chapter of Healing the Children Foundation, which helps
American and foreign children get medical care. Florida Hospital donated
its services, as did Winter Park plastic surgeon Dr. Jeffrey Har-tog.
stayed with two host families, where she picked up some American attitudes
and indulged in wearing blue jeans along with her more traditional
Bangladesh garb. Jannatul spoke no English when she came to Florida and
knew no one. She grew close to Savanna
Thakur, a Bangladesh native who has lived in the United States for 22
years and has interpreted for Jannatul. Thakur stayed by Jannatul's side
during all of her surgeries. Now Jannatul speaks a little English, but her
heavy accent makes it hard to understand her. She explains that she no
longer wants to get married. Instead, she said, she will go to college
and maybe become a doctor or teacher.
will miss the conveniences of American life when she leaves Orlando on May
31, but she is eager to return to her parents and seven siblings. She
isn't afraid of her attacker, who is being prosecuted. She is simply
angry. But, she will try to pull her life together. She may have
more surgeries. Hartog said he may go to Bangladesh later this year or
next and can work more on Jannatul. She may even return to the United
States for more work.
now, she expects to continue to live with the flashbacks of that traumatic
night. Part of her knows that life isn't about how you look, but who you
are. But at 16, those words ring hollow. When she looks in the mirror,
it's the scars she sees. "People look at my face first. It's their
first impression," her interpreter relayed. "It doesn't matter
how good a person I am."
ASSOCIATED PRESS KATHLEEN,
-- A 7-year-old girl died when she knocked over a container of highly
corrosive acid while playing hide-and-seek with her grandmother and a
small amount spilled on her lower body, causing severe burns.
Redfern died late Friday, just a few hours after the accident in her
home's back yard. Police said Savannah and her grandmother, Britt Porter,
were playing when the girl ran into the workshop for her father's cleaning
business and knocked over a bucket containing about a pint of a
hydrofluoric acid. Its top flew off and some of the acid splashed on the
girl. Family members heard her screams and drove her to Lakeland
Regional Medical Center. She was then flown to Tampa General Hospital,
where she died surrounded by family and friends.
Dan Battle of the Polk County Fire Department said hydrofluoric acid,
which is used to brighten aluminum, is extremely corrosive. Firefighters
don airtight suits if dealing with a spill of the acid, he said.
short contact with small quantities can cause severe painful burns
inside and outside the body,"
Redfern, the girl's father, said he rarely uses hydrofluoric acid, but a
supplier gave him some. He had planned to dispose of it. Kathleen is about
50 miles east of Tampa.