Prior Lake takes burned Vietnamese girl to its heart

  • Article by: JON TEVLIN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 6, 2011 - 6:26 PM

She was 4 years old and living with her poor family in rural Vietnam when it happened, but when she talks about it 10 years later in her temporary home in Prior Lake, you can tell the memory remains vivid.

Thao Nguyen's voice is small but confident, with just a hint of accent. There is no anger when she talks about how the boy hit her on the head because she wouldn't give him another slice of a clementine, then pushed her into a haystack and set it on fire. Calmly, she gives the horrifying details of being trapped in the haystack as flames burned her face, hair and hands, and how when she ran to her parents they didn't recognize her.

Thao sits on the couch, gesturing with her hands, which are missing several fingers. A pink flower and headband cover up a bald spot; she has curled her hair and painted her toenails pink for an interview. Her face is still a little swollen from recent surgery and stitches cross her face just beneath her eyes. Below the stitches, the skin -- her new skin -- looks smooth and soft. Thao's new face is taking shape, one surgery at a time.

Chuck DeVet, one of the people responsible for Thao's amazing journey, sums up what everybody in the room is thinking: "Thao, you look so beautiful."

"Thank you," she says.

A tale of Minnesota Nice

It all started when DeVet, a retired banker, brought his daughter, Annetta, to Vietnam on an "adventure tour." They witnessed the poverty and vowed to set up a charity to help poor children, which they did in 2002. Humanitarian Services for Children of Vietnam (www.hscv.org) now provides food, clothing, shelter and schooling to hundreds of kids in and near Hanoi.

A couple of years ago, Thao's family brought her to the orthopedic program when Annetta was running the agency there. She tried to find help for Thao in Vietnam, without success. She made a few calls back to the United States, asking doctors for advice. One of them put her in touch with Shriners Hospital in Sacramento, Calif., where she lived with a host family for a few months and got treatment before the DeVets brought her to Prior Lake. Here, the community has adopted Thao as one of their own.

"This is a real story about Minnesota Nice," says Chuck. "So many people have pitched in to offer help and expertise. It's been amazing."

Patty DeVet hands me a long list of people she'd like to thank, too many names to get in one column. They include doctors Joseph Skow and Steven Moran from Shriners Hospital for Children, skin specialist Jennifer Biglow and Leo and Cindy Li, owners of Fong's Restaurant in Prior Lake, which gives proceeds from a golf tournament to help Thao. Attorneys from the law firms of Fredrikson and Byron and Walling, Berg and Debele have worked for free to extend Thao's visa so she can continue to get help.

"All the medical people have been so caring," says Patty DeVet. "That's what has affected me most. They all call regularly to see how she is doing."

Thao's personality makes that easy, says Mary Mitchell, the RN who works with her at Shriners in Minneapolis. "What she has undergone is hard to imagine," says Mitchell. "What she has is such a gift. She teaches me every day how to deal with adversity. What Dr. Skow is going to be able to do for her will be amazing."

A life full of friends

An anonymous donor gave Thao a scholarship to St. Michael School, where the kids have embraced her. She has tons of friends and is invited to parties and sleepovers -- living the life of a normal Minnesota schoolgirl.

"Even kids I don't know say hi to me in the hallway," says Thao, who gets mostly A's in school. She is great in math and art, even though she had to teach herself to write and draw holding a pencil with both hands.

It's a big change from the days after she was burned, when she told her mother, "Why don't you just let me die?"

Thao remembers that when she came home from the hospital, her mother had covered all the mirrors in the house "so I wouldn't see what I looked like and freak out."

Now, Thao is not afraid to look in the mirror to see her new chin and cheeks taking shape around a beautiful smile. She even has a Facebook page.

Dreaming big

On Thursday, Thao had another doctor's appointment, then she was going shopping to buy a dress to be in Annetta's upcoming wedding.

I ask Thao if she wants to say anything to those who have helped her.

"I am very, very thankful to Chuck, Annetta and Patty for taking me in," she says. "I came from a small girl in a small village in Vietnam and now I am here. They changed my life."

Cindy Li, whose kids go to school with Thao, says the girl doesn't realize the impact she's made in Prior Lake.

"Parents tell me all the time how thankful they are that their kids know Thao," she said. "She has taught the kids, and brought a lot to this community."

I ask Thao what she wants to be when she grows up. It's not surprising that she dreams big.

"I want to be an astronaut," she says confidently. "I want to go out into the big unierse."

jtevlin@startribune.com • 612-673-1702

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