Wednesday , May 29 2024

Vietnamese burn survivor finds love with American doctor


With burn scars covering 80% of her body, Nguyen Thi Thu Dao never believed she’d find love until Michael French proposed to her.

Dao and French celebrating at the wedding of French’s son July, 2023. Photo courtesy of Dao and French

Dao and French celebrating at the wedding of French’s son July, 2023. Photo courtesy of Dao and French

Born on a cold winter day in 1983 in the southern Binh Dinh province, Dao’s mother often placed the newborn in a hammock over a charcoal brazier for warmth. The hammock unfortunately flipped one day, and the infant Dao fell into the fire, suffering burns over 80% of her body.

She survived but was left disfigured, with her left hand losing all of its fingers, scars spreading across her chin, and her left arm atrophied.

As a schoolchild, Dao often ran home crying and pleaded with her mother to let her quit school because she got bullied there so much for her looks.

“I wished I didn’t exist,” Dao recalls. “The idea of being looked at scared me, so I always shrank back and covered my mouth with my hand when encountering strangers.”

Socially-isolated Dao studied tailoring after completing high school. She still felt pity for herself whenever someone said: “Who would hire someone disabled?”

Dao’s parents earned a modest living as farmers and thus couldn’t afford to pay for their child to get any rehabilitation procedures. They had to wait until 2005, when a charity medical that conducted operations for those with disabilities went to Binh Dinh General Hospital and was able to provide Dao with surgery.

Though the procedure was completed in one day, she asked to stay with the team for two additional days as a volunteer.

Then she met French, a doctor from California and member of the team.

French said he was drawn to Dao as he saw her busy feeding and changing diapers for children post-surgery, despite her disfigured left arm. The two started talking and became friends.

“I was moved by her kind heart,” French says.

Dao (second from L), French, and their children at a friend’s house in California, the U.S. June, 2023. Photo courtesy of Dao and French

Dao (second from L), French, and their children at a friend’s house in California, the U.S. June, 2023. Photo courtesy of Dao and French

French’s subsequent return to the U.S did not prevent him from keeping in touch with Dao. He frequently checked up on her health and her work. Meanwhile, Dao merely considered him a benefactor and did not allow herself to think any further.

The American man traveled to Ho Chi Minh City, where Dao was working for a tourism company, five years later. The two scheduled a meeting, during which they walked around the city’s District 1, and French bought Dao a Vietnamese ao dai when they passed a fabric shop. Dao said her heart beat so fast hearing French praise her looks.

He then asked to hold Dao’s stunted left hand as they strolled. The two then dropped by a bar and French took her to dance a song together. For the first time in her life, under the yellow lights and with gentle music playing, Dao felt she was a beautiful woman.

French’s proposal, “marry me,” which slipped out of his mouth one fateful 2015 evening, surprised her, and made her feel like she was in a dream.

“I was happy,” Dao says. “But I was scared at the same time, fearing that he might be insincere.”

French then gained Dao’s trust when he visited her family in her hometown. With Dao acting as an interpreter, French formally asked her family to let him marry her, to which they approved. That winter, Dao’s mother tearfully sent her daughter to the U.S. with French.

The interracial couple life was not easy for either partner at first.

Coming from a reserved Asian culture, Dao was shocked by Americans’ casual physical contact, making her and French frequently argue over jealousy. The misunderstandings were gradually resolved, partly thanks to French’s patience.

French also assisted Dao in improving her English skills and helped her sign up for an accounting course. Dao has been working at his dental clinic since completing the courses.

Dao, French, and their children at French’s class reunion in June, 2023. Photo courtesy of Dao and French

Dao, French, and their children at French’s class reunion in June, 2023. Photo courtesy of Dao and French

Dao was introduced to French’s two kids from his previous marriage during her first year in the U.S. The relationship between the Vietnamese woman and the kids could not be considered “perfect” at first.

French’s children respected Dao but were unhappy about their father’s remarriage, which made her sad, but she did not take it personally. Still, she kept preparing food for the kids and secretly giving them money whenever they dropped by as she understood their financial struggles.

“I love my husband,” Dao explains. “So, I love his children in a Vietnamese mother’s way,”

Her genuine nature gradually convinced the children, and they began to see Dao as their mother. They also came to understand why their father fell for a Vietnamese woman who weighed only 39 kg and had one stunted hand.

As time passes by, Dao has gotten more familiar with life in the foreign country. She and French have had three children together, and French has always taught them that their mother is a beautiful and optimistic woman. Whenever she is hugged and kissed on the scars by the kids, and whenever her left arm is held by French as they walk on the street (which he always does when they go out together), Dao says she feels like she has left all of her insecurities behind in the past.

The American man’s love has also motivated Dao to return to Vietnam every year for charity work as a way to express her gratitude for life.

“Love makes me feel complete,” Dao says.

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