Chau and Tammy Nguyen Photo by Tina Eshleman
Tammy Nguyen doesn't remember the 2007 fire that took three family members' lives, destroyed their home and left her with severe burns on 80 percent of her body.
She doesn't remember being picked up by a helicopter and flown with her mother, Chau Nguyen, and a doctor and nurse from VCU Medical Center to the Shriners Hospital for Children in Cincinnati. She just recalls waking up in the hospital, which specializes in burn treatment.
"I thought she wasn't going to make it," Chau Nguyen says. "Every hour, I'd ask and they'd say, ‘I don't know.' " With each of the 10 surgeries during Tammy's 45-day stay in the hospital, Chau would ask again. "They said it was about 1 percent chance for her to be alive," she says. "They can't be sure."
Tammy, who was 8 years old at the time, says, "I remember in the hospital they gave me a bag of my hair." Surgeons took skin from her scalp and attached it to her face. In time, her face healed, the skin on her scalp grew back and so did her hair. She returned to elementary school wearing a protective mask for her face and garment to cover her healing body.
For all she's been through, she seems remarkably upbeat. Now a sophomore at Chesterfield County's Monacan High School, where she's taking nearly all honors classes, Tammy enjoys soccer, tennis and badminton, and spending time with her three best friends. She talks about going to college and becoming a teacher. Of the Shriners, she says, "I'm just really thankful that they did all that stuff for me."
Recalling the aftermath of the fatal house fire on March 3, 2007, purposely set by her ex-husband, Chau Nguyen says, "It was like hell for me." The fire killed the perpetrator, Thanh Nguyen, along with the couple's 9-year-old son, Anthony, and Chau's mother, Loan Tran.
Without Tammy in her life, "I don't think I'd be able to sit here and talk to you," Chau Nguyen says. "She's strong. That's why I hang in there ― for her."
Nguyen wants people to know about the work the Shriners do and to support them. "I would like to help other people," she says. "I don't have money to help, but I have something to say."
The Nguyens were among seven Virginia families who talked about their experiences during a September banquet at the Acca Shrine Temple on Richmond's North Side. Several of the children had burn injuries. Two have congenital scoliosis, a deformity that occurs when vertebrae are not fully formed. Another little girl was born with a severe club foot. A boy, who had been adopted from an orphanage in the Ukraine at age 5 1/2 by a Fredericksburg family, was still crawling then because he had not received treatment for his cerebral palsy. Now 8, the boy is able to walk on his own.
Noting that they previously knew about Shriners mainly as fez-wearing men who drive tiny cars in parades, most of the parents said they would not have been able to afford the medical care that the Shriners provided for free, along with transportation to hospitals in Greenville, S.C.; Erie, Pa.; Cincinnati; Boston and Philadelphia; and even meals and lodging during the trips.
Chau Nguyen, a native of Vietnam, says, "In my country, when you walk into a hospital, you have to pay first." But as a nail-salon worker with no health insurance, that would have been impossible. The Shriners' doctor who was with her and Tammy on that first flight to Cincinnati told her not to worry. "The doctor said, ‘You don't have to pay a penny,' " she says. "I don't know how much it cost, but it's a lot."
Jim McAllister, a Chesterfield architect who serves as chairman of the Acca Shriners' hospital committee, says that since Shriners Hospitals for Children were established in 1920, the organization traditionally covered all of the costs for patients' medical care. About four years ago, the Shriners began accepting insurance payments. "If it's available, we'll use that," he says, "but if it's not available, we'll still treat the child without regard to the family's ability to pay."
With close to 1,600 members, the 127-year-old Acca Shriners unit serves a region that stretches from north of Fredericksburg south to Danville, east to the Northern Neck, and west and northwest to around Appomattox and Strasburg, respectively. The Richmond-based Shriners are currently working with more than 450 children, though McAllister notes that some who are far along in their treatment, like Tammy, may be seen infrequently.
In 2000, the local Shriners stepped up their transportation program for patients and their families by buying two vans and enlisting 24 members as drivers, along with several of their wives. "It's taken a huge jump since then," McAllister says. Before that, about 70 children in the region were receiving care through the Shriners' organization.
"Families will sometimes drive and we reimburse them," he says. For patients who need to travel to a more distant Shriners hospital for specialized care, the Acca Shriners arrange for commercial flights or private flights through the charitable organizations Angel Flight Mid-Atlantic or Children's Flight of Hope.
Thanks to a new partnership with a local independent surgery center, some patients who have been treated at the Greensville and Philadelphia Shriners hospitals won't have to travel outside of Richmond for screenings or follow-up care. Clinics will be held on some Saturdays at Stony Point Surgery Center, part of Medarva Healthcare (formerly the Richmond Eye and Ear Healthcare Alliance). The first of those is set for Nov. 9. Two local orthopedic surgeons who trained at Shriners hospitals, Dr. Susan Atkins and Dr. Chester Sharps, will see the patients.
Stony Point Surgery Center is donating the space, and the Shriners will reimburse the center for the time spent by support staff. Bruce Kupper, Medarva's chief executive officer, says the relationship came about because one of his organization's board members, Dr. Richard Redman, is also a Shriner. Redman has been conducting patient screenings at his plastic surgery practice in Henrico County.
"We see working with the Shriners as an extension of our mission: making health care more accessible to people who need it," Kupper says. "The hope is that by making it more convenient, more patients will be able to access their system."