Verlinda Vu and her mother, Mau Vu. Photo courtesy Verlinda Vu.

When Verlinda Vu was crowned 2010-2011 Miss Vietnam Washington last year, she had no idea that her journey would also entail dealing with her mother’s serious illness.

In November of 2010, Vu’s mother, Mau Vu, had a stroke.

“On that night, my mom struggled to get into bed, crawled to the bathroom because she had to go, then crawled back and struggled to get back into bed.” Vu continued, “Around eight that morning, my four year-old nephew came to me saying that grandma does not answer him.” Vu immediately checked on her mother and found that Mau Vu could not talk or hold herself up. Vu called her brother at work.

Vu’s brother, Thu Mai, told her to call 911 and within minutes, the Seattle Fire Department rushed Vu’s mother to Swedish Hospital. Mau Vu was in the hospital for three weeks and had outpatient rehab for two weeks to regain her speech and strengthen her body, valiantly struggling through it all.

“My mom is a strong woman warrior,” said Vu. “She went through hard times in Vietnam, immigrated here, and worked at housekeeping and laundry at Marriott Residence since 1996.” Her mother raised Vu by herself since she was three.

But now, it was up to Vu to support her mother. The roles in the household changed rapidly.

“We used to rely on mom,” said Vu. “Now, she has to depend on us.” Vu lives in an extended family setting with her mom, her older brother, Thu Mai, and his wife and two sons, Washington and Tony, ages 7 and 4. Thu Mai took on the financial responsibilities of the house and Vu orchestrated their mom’s medical care.

Vu took her mom to appointments and treatments, including visits to the doctor, cardiologist, physical therapist, occupational therapist and the gym. But it soon became apparent that Mau had another issue — a stiff stomach mass as “big as a watermelon.” The mass grew, pushing against her lungs, making it difficult for her to breathe. It was likely ovarian cancer.

But it took two and a half weeks for the cardiologist and the gynecologist to discuss Mau Vu’s case.

“I was mad,” said Vu of her reaction to her mother’s treatment. Vu encourages others to “always make sure to push the physicians. You have a voice. If you do not show that you are proactive, then you get thrown on the side.” Vu called the doctor’s office daily to get them to set up an appointment to talk. “Because of my annoyance, I got [my mother] the appointment.”

In one instance, Mau Vu was rushed to the Swedish emergency unit as she was now having serious trouble breathing. Her lungs had collapsed. Within an hour, the doctors at Swedish convened. They performed a lung tap, taking two litters of fluid out. Unfortunately, the fluid contained cancer cells set for stage 4 ovarian cancer, supporting an earlier held suspicion.

Vu and Thu Mai met with the medical staff and an interpreter. Medical experts said surgery and post surgery chemotherapy would be imminent. As it turns out, Vu’s mother had lost a sister to cancer in Vietnam who did not get medical treatment. So, Mau Vu instructed her children to go ahead with the surgery but she did not want to hear any details.

The surgery was successful though it left Mau Vu very weak. She lost the rehab progress she had made from the physical therapy from the stroke and was back to square one.

She is now on chemotherapy every three weeks, suffering pain, losing her hair and experiencing diminshing energy and immunity. Vu is her constant companion. The mother and daughter now have detailed discussions about Mau Vu’s physical condition.

“I have to make sure that she tells me what she is feeling,” said Vu. “It makes a big difference if her head hurts inside or if her scalp hurts due to the chemotherapy. This is a big change for her because she is very independent.”

Vu is focused on taking care of her mom and continuing as a second year nursing student at Seattle University, a Youth Organizer for the Vietnamese Friendship Association and being a Vietnamese Eucharistic Youth leader. Her family, friends and Rainier Scholar peers help keep her and her mother’s spirits up.

Thanks to that support, sacrifice and love from the family, Mau Vu’s cancer is in 70 percent remission and 30 percent completely cured.


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