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Brother hopes to save ailing twin (video)

By JR Ortega
July 27, 2013 at 2:27 a.m.

Thanh Nguyen sits at his apartment near MD Anderson.  The photo of his two sons, Tony and Allen, who are in the Marines, always stays with him. Thanh was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia about four years ago but became really sick from the cancer in April. He has since undergone chemotherapy and is now in need of a bone marrow transplant. Doctors say that his twin brother, from Vietnam, where Thanh was born, is his best chance at a match. The Nguyen family was able to obtain a medical visa for Thanh's twin and fly him to Houston to be tested as a possible donor.

HOUSTON - The war was over.

Scurrying into a plane, Thanh Nguyen, who was in the South Vietnam military, never felt so adventurous.

As the Huey helicopter lifted off the runway, his heart remained in Vietnam, but his sights were set on America.

The day was April 30, 1975 - the end of the Vietnam War.

Then in his 20s, he was traveling to Odessa to live with an American sponsor family.

Nguyen did not know English, he did not have a job, and he had nobody, but none of that mattered.

Stepping off the Huey, he was approached by a man who pulled the shirt off his back to give to Nguyen.

He had that little.

And that is how Nguyen came to America.

"I never thought that I would come here," Nguyen said.

Those memories feel like yesterday for the 61-year-old Victoria resident, and lately, he's been feeling a little closer to his Vietnamese roots.

That's because Nguyen's twin brother, Trung Nguyen, who remained in Vietnam, flew to Houston two weeks ago.

Reuniting for the first time in almost 10 years was a happy occasion, but the reality is Nguyen's brother is here to save his life.

Life with cancer

Four years ago, Nguyen was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia, a cancer that rapidly overproduces white blood cells that invade the bone marrow and interferes with normal blood cells.

The process was simple: Once a year, Nguyen, who has worked as a press operator at the Victoria Advocate for 20 years, would go to Houston to have blood work done.

Results always came back normal. That was until April, when Nguyen spent several days suffering from severe bouts of stomach pain.

From there, it all spiraled out of control.

A blood test showed an increased number of white blood cells, meaning the cancer was more aggressive.

Now, he lives at a medical-housing apartment near MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.

Because Nguyen has a twin, the hope is that his brother's bone marrow is a match for a transplant.

Regardless of the situation, Nguyen has a positive outlook.

"I feel very good," he said, his twin sitting next to him. "I think I have a very strong spirit."

These days, Nguyen looks and sometimes feels much weaker. He's lost some weight, and he's balding from the chemotherapy.

His brother, only minutes older than him, is a lanky man. Trung stares at everything around him, amazed by everything America has to offer.

"It's very different from back home," his twin said in Vietnamese. Like Nguyen in 1975, he does not speak or understand English.

But the gravity of his brother's illness is something that can be universally understood.

To come to America, Nguyen's doctor had to request a medical Visa for his brother. What could normally takes months only took days to be approved. Weeks later, he arrived.

The day after he arrived in Houston, Nguyen's brother was tested to see whether he was a match for the bone marrow transplant. It could take up to two weeks before they know the test results.

If Trung is a match, the transplant process will begin, taking almost a month.

If he's not a match, Nguyen's daughter, Kim, 28, and her two brothers, Allen and Tony, who are serving in the U.S. military, will then be tested as possible matches.

Right now, Nguyen has a 70 to 85 percent possibility of a match with his twin, his daughter said.

"Dad's getting there," she said about her father being one step closer to remission. "This is a big step."

Coming to America

Nguyen feels he owes everything to America.

When he first moved to Odessa, he found a job through a publisher of the Odessa American newspaper.

He worked bundling papers, a simple job that required little communication.

Every day, Nguyen would ride a child's bike - it's all he had.

Those days were rough. Name-calling and teasing from residents of Odessa were commonplace, especially after the end of the Vietnam War.

"It was a very hard life," said Nguyen through tears. "But I fought back."

Nguyen learned English through elementary school courses.

And then there was learning through trial and error during everyday communication.

He worked at it daily until two years later, when he sat down and had a sudden realization.

"I said, 'My God, my life has changed,'" he said, still in tears. Talking about coming to America was like being born again, he said.

Everything was different: the language, the clothes and the environment.

Nguyen kept pushing until he wound up being promoted to foreman of the pressroom.

Now, he knew English, he had a job, and he had somebody - his wife, Sandy.

After two decades in Odessa, Nguyen decided he needed a change. Nguyen and his family moved to Victoria, where he was hired at the Victoria Advocate in 1993. The transition was an easy one, he said.

At that time, the Advocate and the Odessa American had the same press.

"I wanted to move somewhere with trees," Nguyen said, laughing.

Life changes

In Houston, the Nguyen family sits down for a late lunch of spring rolls and pho, a popular Vietnamese noodle soup.

Life must continue to be as normal as possible; Nguyen won't have it any other way.

As they wait to see whether Nguyen's brother is a match, there is nothing more they can do but wait.

Nguyen plans to take the family throughout Houston, a chance to let them see what Texas and America have to offer.

So far, Trung and his wife have been amazed by things such as the ratio of motorcycles to cars and the open land.

If all goes well, Nguyen's brother is expected to stay until October, just to make sure both brothers are OK after the transplant.

"I don't mind at all," the twin said in Vietnamese. "I'll do whatever it takes."

Nguyen said he appreciates all the help and prayers from family, friends and sometimes even strangers.

This time, his platoon of soldiers is his family, and supporters will help him fight the latest war waging inside his body.

"I'm going to get through this," said Nguyen, a frail but promising smile stretching across his face. "You want to live for them."



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