Four days after last Monday’s fire near National Children’s Hospital in Hanoi, two human skulls were found in the rubble.
A few days later, police confirmed the victims were a couple from the northern province of Phu Tho who had been renting a room near the hospital so they could be near their premature baby.
An investigation revealed the fire started at a rental house because of an overloaded electrical circuit. The house was a makeshift structure built of flammable materials that failed to meet construction requirements.
The fire spread quickly, damaging 19 houses and affecting 99 people from 31 families.
The rental house was known as a cheap place for poor people from outside to stay when their children required treatment at the hospital.
Renters like the victims paid VND15,000 for a night’s stay, a rate much lower than other guesthouses in the area. A few dozen renters shared a large room, leaving each person just enough room to lie down.
Almost all of the renters accepted the makeshift accommodations because the house was close to the hospital and because they – as parents and caregivers – wanted to save money to cover their children’s treatments.
These news stories haunted me. I could not forget reading about the premature baby, which reminded me of the time I spent at the hospital with my daughter.
One of the memories that stuck with me from that time is of the hospital’s corridors full of children and their families. As a child is taken to the hospital, there are at least one or two adults who go along.
Those who live far from the hospital are burdened by more than luggage as they travel into town. They carry worries about their child’s illness, concerns about medical bills and the stress of finding a place to stay.
Only one adult is allowed to stay with each child patient overnight. After hearing about child illnesses, medicines and visits to the doctor, we used to joke: “Which hotel would you like to stay in tonight?”
Some answered “a thousand-star hotel” as they found a spot in the hospital corridor or yard to sleep. Others said “a low-cost hotel with high standards” as they rented a place to bathe and sleep.
Among these answers, I remember hearing about the same cheap guesthouse that burned down last week.
The conditions were bad, but it would be hard to ask more from a nightly rental cheaper than a bowl of phở sold on the street outside the hospital.
In 2014, the hospital opened a building to offer affordable accommodations to caregivers and parents of patients who live far away but require regular treatment. The building houses about 200 people and charges VND75,000 for a night’s stay. But this one building is far from enough to meet demand.
Private rental houses that fill a hole in the market have turned into lucrative businesses.
Other major hospitals in the city such as Hospital E, the Cancer Hospital, Viet Duc and Bach Mai also offer affordable rooms for family members of patients. These facilities have drawn positive reactions for easing the burden on people who travel for care.
Health Minister Nguyen Thi Kim Tien, when visiting child patients and family members affected by the fire, called on the National Children’s Hospital to engage donors in an effort to offer more accommodations.
I believe Tien raised a big question for the hospital, which (like many other hospitals) is still struggling to deal with overcrowding and funding shortages. Even if the hospital could solve those problems, it would still be a challenge to find land to build on.
A friend told me it is not fair to expect hospitals to provide housing for patients’ caregivers. After all, hospitals should focus on medical care.
But I think family members play a crucial role in Vietnam’s healthcare system, particularly because there are not enough nurses to care for every patient. Parents often choose to travel to further hospitals instead of visiting local facilities because local healthcare has not earned their trust. The ministry should address this root of the problem.
Around hospitals in the city, family members of patients are staying in unsafe conditions like those in the rental house. Yesterday, I learned the rental house had existed for nearly 20 years. While many people are surely grateful for the cheap place to stay, these establishments put their clients at risk. The couple from Phu Tho paid far too high a price to stay near their child. The fire may have been an accident, but it could also have been prevented.