Refugee May Get to Keep His New Life : Vietnam Agrees to Let Doctor In to Test Siblings for Transplant

Times Staff Writer

The Vietnamese government finally gave permission Tuesday for a doctor to enter that country and determine whether the brother or sister of a 17-year-old refugee who suffers from aplastic anemia would be a suitable bone marrow donor and give the boy a chance to live.

“It seems that they finally sorted out all their problems and agreed to it,” said Dr. Vasilious Berdoukas, an Australian physician on loan to Childrens Hospital of Los Angeles, as he and his smiling patient, Le Thoi, talked to reporters after the good news from Hanoi.

“I am very happy,” the boy said when asked through an interpreter how he felt about the doctor’s visit. “If I don’t have bone marrow transplant, I feel very bad.”

Operation Crucial


Berdoukas said Le Thoi would probably die without the operation.

With the transplant, the doctor estimated, Le Thoi’s chances would improve to 75%--if it can be done soon.

Aplastic anemia is a condition in which the bone marrow stops manufacturing white blood cells needed to fight off disease.

Berdoukas spent two weeks in Bangkok waiting for clearance to get into Vietnam, but he finally returned to Los Angeles in frustration on Sunday. Mike Lewis, chairman of the Make-a-Wish Foundation, which will sponsor the physician’s trip, said then the Vietnamese apparently were “not in any humanitarian mood.”


Allowed One Day

But on Tuesday the Vietnamese notified the Australian government, which relayed the news to the foundation, that Berdoukas will be allowed to go to Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) on June 13 for one day only to take blood samples from the brother and sister.

Berdoukas will take the samples to Bangkok for testing and, if either the brother or sister is a suitable donor, he or she will be flown by the foundation to Los Angeles to undergo the marrow transplant operation.

“He must have the transplant within the next four to six weeks if it is to be successful,” said the doctor. He pointed out that on Monday Le Thoi’s condition had worsened to the point where he had to be readmitted for blood and platelets transfusions. That was the second time a transfusion of platelets has been necessary.


Platelets are associated with blood clotting, but too many transfusions would lower the chances of a bone marrow transplant’s success. After 10 such transfusions, Berdoukas said, “the chances (of survival) are down under 50%.”

Cooperation Expected

Asked if he foresaw any problems bringing either the brother or sister here for the operation, Berdoukas responded, “If they (the Vietnamese government) have come this far, and allowed me to go there and test them, I would be very surprised if they didn’t allow them to leave.” Both apparently have been contacted and are willing to come help their brother, he said.

He said he did not think Hanoi officials are worried that the brother or sister would attempt to stay in the United States because each is married and each has four children.


Otto Bos, spokesman for U.S. Sen. Pete Wilson (R-Calif.), who had been attempting for a month to obtain Vietnamese permission for the doctor’s visit, said Tuesday that authorities there have agreed to have Le Thoi’s older brother and sister at the airport in Ho Chi Minh City for the blood tests.

Bos said much of the problem appeared to have been one of communication. “We had to go through Moscow,” he said. “It was a cumbersome process.”

At Tuesday afternoon’s press conference at Childrens Hospital, the boy sat with fluids being fed into his body intravenously. With him were his father, Le Thuan, and his mother, Dinh Taut. She has been staying with him at Ronald McDonald House, a residential facility for the terminally ill near Childrens Hospital.

The boy, his parents and four other brothers fled by boat to Hong Kong after the Communist takeover of their country. Most now live in the Oxnard area. All have been tested and none would be a suitable donor.


Five other brothers are dead. The mother said through the interpreter Tuesday that they died “sudden deaths . . . of unknown cause” during the war.