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Refugee Gets Transplant of Bone Marrow : Vietnam Let Brother, the Donor, Come to U.S. in Unprecedented Move

Times Staff Writer

A critically ill Vietnamese refugee received a bone marrow transplant Monday from a younger brother who was allowed to travel to the United States in an unprecedented gesture of cooperation by the Vietnamese government.

But even with the surgery, doctors treating Vo Tien Duc said, Duc has only a 30% to 40% chance of survival.

“He is cautiously positive and optimistic although he realizes how sick he is,” said Dr. Richard Fisher, chief of hematology-oncology at the Loyola University Medical Center west of Chicago.

Unemployed Father of 4

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Duc, 33, unemployed and the father of four small children, received bone marrow from his 18 year-old-brother, Vo Hoang Van. Duc suffers from aplastic anemia, a disease in which the bone marrow stops making essential white blood cells.

Van traveled here from a Mekong Delta village south of Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), after a massive international effort was made to find him and win permission for his trip to the United States. The cooperation of the Vietnamese government was unprecedented since it won control of the country 10 years ago.

The two brothers spoke briefly by telephone Monday afternoon from separate rooms in the hospital and, according to Dr. Judith L. Landinsky, they “expressed mutual concern about each other’s health after the transplant.”

The surgery was hardest on Van, who, while under a general anesthetic, had a total of about 1.25 pints of bone marrow taken from 100 punctures in his pelvic region during two hours of surgery Monday morning.

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Procedure Takes 6 Hours

The marrow was transplanted into Duc over a six-hour period through blood-transfusion-like injections completed late in the afternoon.

Fisher said that Duc’s age, the large number of blood transfusions he has been given to keep him alive over the last two months and the seriousness of his condition all were factors in the less-than-optimistic prognosis.

“The procedure was technically successful but the outcome cannot be predicted,” said Dr. Kathleen Remlinger, assistant director of the hospital’s bone marrow transplant unit.

The private medical center agreed to perform the transplant after the only other hospital in Chicago capable of such an operation refused to accept Duc as a patient. Public aid will cover only slightly more than half the estimated $100,000 to $170,000 costs for the transplant.

Sons of Fish Trader

Duc and Van, sons of a fish trader, live worlds apart. Duc fled Vietnam in a boat in 1978, three years after victorious North Vietnamese troops marched into Saigon, the former capital of South Vietnam. In this country, he first lived in Michigan, then moved to Chicago about three years ago. He has been unable to find work since arriving here. Van, his parents and nine siblings remained behind in the delta village.

The brothers were reunited for the surgery through the efforts of Landinsky, who heads the U.S. Committee for Scientific Cooperation with Vietnam. She borrowed $5,000 to fly to Vietnam to find a sibling who might be compatible for the surgery after receiving an appeal from doctors at the University of Illinois Hospital, where Duc’s illness was first diagnosed.

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Van will remain in the United States for another month, long enough for a second transplant if the first is rejected, doctors said. Patients rarely survive a third transplant.


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