“My whole life I worked with children,” said Be Ho, sharing her story about how she got involved in the Children’s Heart Fund, the name of Children’s HeartLink until 1994.
Children’s Heart Fund changed her life, not just her job.
In 1972, Be Ho escorted one of the first groups of children from Vietnam to Minnesota to get their heart defects surgically repaired. She was chosen to do this because she spoke fluent English, which she polished while studying nursing through a scholarship in England.
“I got a phone call from an American doctor telling me that they will have a group of heart patients to bring over to Minneapolis, Minnesota, for surgeries. And since he knew that I could speak English well, and they didn’t have time to search for other nurses, he asked me if I would be willing to go. I said, ‘Boy, that’s like I won the lottery.‘”
Back then, she worked as a nursing supervisor at Nhi Dong 1 Hospital in Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City. Interestingly, a few decades later when we started training in-country heart specialists, this hospital became our first partner in Vietnam. Currently, it’s on track to become a Children’s HeartLink Center of Excellence.
First trip to the USA
Be has a special album with pictures and newspaper clippings about that trip that changed her life. She brought four young patients from Vietnam to Minnesota, and then was given two more children to care for when she arrived in Minneapolis.
Her first journey to Minnesota was not an easy one.
“We were in Los Angeles, waiting for our flight to Minneapolis, and one of my young patients turned blue. I had to call for help to get some oxygen. When we were on the Northwest flight, all of a sudden a flight attendant came to me saying that they needed me. I said, ‘But I need to be with my patients.’ The flight attendant offered to watch them for me. It turned out that there was a gentleman returning from his vacation in Hawaii who needed CPR. I had to do mouth-to-mouth breathing. A few seconds later, another gentleman who also knew CPR, came to help me. We took turns: one pushed down on the chest and the other gave rescue breaths. When the plane landed in Minneapolis, this man’s heart was still beating.”
The Children’s Heart Fund team was waiting for Be and the children at the airport.
“The Heart Fund team was scared to death because the airplane didn’t let us out, and an ambulance and a fire truck were there because of that gentleman I was helping. But they were thinking that the emergency vehicles were there because of one of our young patients.” But that was not the case, fortunately.
Out of appreciation for her efforts with the medical emergency in flight, Northwest Airlines gave Be free tickets to a destination of her choice and threw a champagne party in her honor at the airport the day when her patients and she were flying back to Vietnam.
Waiting for surgeries
In Minneapolis Be stayed with six children in the house for medical residents that was located across the street from the Metropolitan Medical Center, where all the children had surgery.
She took care of them before surgery – giving them their medications, cooking for them, keeping the house clean, and more. Then she escorted her patients to the hospital and took care of them again after surgery. She even observed the surgeries in the operating room. At the house, Be had a couple of helpers – medical students from the University of Minnesota.
“One day, the kids wanted pho, the Vietnamese soup. I couldn’t think how to make it in Minneapolis. I found noodles at a grocery store, but how would I get the bones to make a broth? Back then they never sold the bones. A student that helped me in the house told me, ‘You look just like a little kid. I will bring you to the butcher. You’ll tell the butcher that you have a dog, and you need the bones for the dog.’ So the butcher gave me a whole bunch of bones. I could make enough pho to eat for a few days. This is how I learned to lie,” laughed Be.
After spending almost half a year in Minnesota, she returned to Vietnam, bringing home her six young patients, for whom this trip was lifesaving.
Escape and back to the USA
“To tell the full story, I should tell you why I’m so grateful to Children’s Heart Fund,” said Be, when it looked like she finished her story.
“Before my country fell, in April of 1975, two members from Children’s Heart Fund went to Vietnam trying to evacuate all the nurses who worked for Children’s Heart Fund and anyone involved in taking care of patients.”
Be said that there were five or six Vietnamese nurses working with Children’s Heart Fund. But she had to turn down this life-changing offer. Because her country was at war, she was not able to contact her parents, who lived only 20 miles away.
“I felt very bad to go without telling my mom and dad, but at the same time, I was so grateful to the folks from Children’s Heart Fund. ‘You traveled all the way from the USA to evacuate me!’ Of course we cried, but I had to stay at Children’s Hospital in Saigon. But then it was harder and harder for me to want to stay in my home country.”
In the early 1980s, Be finally decided to escape from Vietnam.
“I telegraphed the Children’s Heart Fund. All I said was that I had a heart problem, and I needed heart surgery in Japan. This was a lie. And I asked if they could help me.”
In fact, Be just wanted to make sure that Children’s Heart Fund was willing to help her after her escape. She had to lie because, otherwise, under the communist regime, admitting you wanted to escape Vietnam meant that you would be arrested.
“Two days later, I got a telegram from Minneapolis: ‘Yes, we will help. Go for it.’ So I felt very comfortable finding a way to escape.”
She was able to make it to a refugee camp in Thailand by taking a little boat packed with people. During the journey the pirates dumped her nursing documents into the sea and took all her money.
“When I arrived at a refugee camp in Thailand, there was an American priest who asked the refugees if they needed any help. I said that I needed to send two telegrams. One to Children’s Heart Fund in Minneapolis and the other one to my parents, letting them know that I am in Thailand, alive.”
Children’s Heart Fund helped Be with immigration paperwork needed to go to the US and with accommodations after she arrived. Also, the fund helped her start over with her nursing career, first, as a nursing assistant at Children’s Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota (now Children’s Minnesota). Then she went back to school to get her RN degree again.
In Minnesota, Be started a family, having married a man she met in the refugee camp. Their two children chose a career in medicine.
In both her native and adopted countries, Be devoted her entire career to saving and improving lives of children. Be won the 2014 Outstanding Nurses Award in the Lifetime Achievement category founded by Mpls St.Paul Magazine to celebrate nursing excellence in the Twin Cities and surrounding areas.
Be went back to Vietnam many times – not just to see her family there, but also as a volunteer for medical missions that treat kids with urologic diseases, and cleft lip and palate.
She retired in 2014, after having worked as a surgical nurse at Children’s in Minneapolis for over 30 years.
Share your story on our 50 Years Blog! If you were a host family or if you have a Children’s HeartLink story or photos, please contact us: firstname.lastname@example.org.