One organisation that I was particularly keen to find out more about on my trip to Hanoi was Sympameals. It was founded in 2005 by Dang Xuan Hop and Le Nguyet Anh, with the simple aim of providing meals for the poorest patients in Hanoi’s National Cancer Hospital (K Hospital)
Many of the patients in the hospital are from poor farming communities and can barely meet the cost of their hospital treatment. Those who can find the money to pay for their treatment may not necessarily be able to afford to stay in hospital, and it is common for patients to have to share a hospital bed. On top of this, patients must also pay for their food, which for some is simply not possible.
Established in December of 2005, SympaMeal now delivers over 200 meal coupons a day to the patients who need them most. The coupon can be exchanged in the hospital’s canteen for food or milk worth up to VND15,000 ($0.7).
Mr Hop very kindly took the time out of his busy schedule to meet with me to discuss the work of his charity, and invited me to visit K hospital on Friday to observe the volunteers at work. This was my first visit to K hospital and gave me an initial insight into the conditions I can expect to encounter when I start work there. Luckily I had a translator in the form of Giang, Ms Van’s son!
Sympameals’ volunteers were operating out of a booth in the entrance to the hospital, and it initially took me a while to find it, as it was almost completely obscured by people clutching their meal tokens, eagerly crowding round, waiting to exchange their tokens for meal vouchers or tins of milk. During the short time that I spent observing, 60 of these coupons were exchanged. One lady stood holding her IV bag above her head, which I offered to hold for her while she waited-I can only imagine how tired her arm would have been otherwise! As we waited, I was approached by another lady collecting milk for her 19 year old daughter, who was due to get an operation for Stomach Cancer the following day. She told Giang and I that her daughter was very sick and they could not afford to pay for her treatment. I can only imagine how desperate she must have felt, and as the only foreign face in the hospital, maybe assumed that I could help.
Sympameals work is not limited to providing food and nutrition. They also provide financial support towards the cost of treatment, travel, living and childcare costs for especially needy cases. It is certainly sobering to think that the cost of a course of Chemotherapy that could potentially provide a lifeline to a Vietnamese Cancer patient costs the equivalent of £100…
It was extremely heartening and very humbling to see the work being done by Sympameals and their tireless volunteers. You only had to look at the smiling faces of the patients as they left clutching their tins of milk to realise how valuable a service this is. I hope that I will be able to spend more time with them over the next few weeks and see more of the wonderful work that they do.