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  • Writer's pictureMara Cao

Hidden Wounds

When I was small, my mom owned a small beauty salon on Telegraph Avenue in Oakland, CA. She used to being me along to her salon so she could watch me while she worked. Her shop was in a very old building and things broke down constantly. Either the water didn't run or the lights didn't work or the door wouldn't shut. Whenever these things happened, she got a man called Mr. Phanh to come and fix them. Like her, he came from Vietnam, as a refugee after the war, and she knew his family back when they were in the old country. He was totally deaf in one ear, and had only partial hearing in the other. To speak to him, my mom had to shout from the side he could still hear. But usually he did not need much explaining. He only had to look and try what she showed him to figure out what was the problem. He was quite clever. He could fix almost anything: light fixtures, electrical gadgets, windows, doors, broken pipes, and even my mom's car when it did not run.

Mr. Phanh's wife worked in the shop with my mom. Mr. Phanh showed up when he was needed, fixed what he was asked to fix, and accepted whatever my mom paid him. Sometimes he even helped my mom clean up the place. Perhaps due to his loss of hearing, he never made much conversation. I don't remember him ever talking to me. For several years it was pretty uneventful. Then one day Mr. Phanh did not show up when he was supposed to. He came the next day, but this began to happen more and more often. His wife began to complain about him to my mom. He was coming home very late every night, and sometimes not at all. He looked haggard and unwashed. After a while my mom and his wife found out that he spent all his time at the Oaks Cards Club, a local casino. It is not clear how it started, but he could not stay away from the cards club. He gambled away all the money he had. He and his wife did not have a lot to begin with. He sold, pawned whatever they had, and borrowed, so he could go to the club. When he won, he would keep playing until he lost everything. When he ran out of money, he still lingered around, either inside or outside the club, sometimes all night. It was as if he was possessed.

Then he began to disappear for days. Nobody knew where he went. Once he was arrested for urinating on the street. He came home then disappeared again. His wife was bewildered and angry. She could not understand why he behaved the way he did. Her crying, begging, scolding did not help. Then he disappeared for good.

Mr. Phanh's wife looked for him at the card club but he was not there. Mr. Phanh's sister, who lived in L.A., called one day and told us he came by to visit her and that after he left, she discovered that her watch was missing. She later found it in a pawn shop. He did not come by again. From then on, none of us knew where he was or what happened to him. Months passed, then years. Once some acquaintances told us they saw him. They believed he was homeless on the streets.

It is only lately that I have begun to understand what happened to Mr. Phanh. My mom told me that Mr. Phanh grew up in a good home and went to school. He wanted to become a mechanical engineer when he was young. But, just out of high school he was drafted. The ongoing war in Vietnam was worse than ever. Thousands of men were being killed and thousands more wounded every month. After he finished basic training, during which his family tried unsuccessfully to bribe and get him out of the army, he was sent to combat. He survived some of the worst battles of the war, but during a fierce engagement, he was badly wounded by a cannon ball that exploded near him. He was brought to the hospital with his guts in a plastic bag. Somehow doctors were able to sew him back together and save him.

He underwent more operations afterward to remove bomb fragments lodged in him, but they could not remove all of them. He carried enough pieces in his body so that he could not pass a metal detector at the airport without triggering the alarm. He lost most of his hearing and for a long time afterward suffered from headaches and dizziness. He tried to kill himself while in the hospital. He tore away the bandages from his wounds and then swallowed lead wires. Doctors had to remove the wires from his stomach. They had to strap him to his hospital bed to prevent him from hurting himself.

I now know that Mr. Phanh had Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Only recently has PTSD become better understood. PTSD is a delayed psychological effect after exposure to risk of serious injury or death to self or others, in events that are outside of usual human experience. The effect can resurface months or years after the event, overwhelming the individual's ability to cope and results in intense feelings of fear, anxiety, helplessness, and horror. It is observed in victims of child abuse, assault, rape, violent accidents, and is prevalent in a lot of combat veterans. People suffering from PTSD are prone to paranoia, obsessive behavior, addiction, and suicidal thoughts. It can cause significant impairment in social, occupational, and other areas of function.

Looking back, I realize that none of us really understood why Mr. Phanh behaved the way he did, neither his wife, nor his sister, nor my mom, nor I, nor anyone who knew him. We did not understand the terror, the pain, the shame inside his mind that drove him to do what he did. We thought he was irresponsible. He probably did not understand what happened to him either. What he needed was treatment. The war that he left behind never ended for him. The war that took away so many young men of his generation did not kill him but left him with a damaged body and a damaged soul. His obsessive behavior was typical of PTSD.

Some months ago, my mom thought she saw him on International Boulevard in Oakland. He was sitting on a bench at a bus stop, with a small plastic bag containing some grocery. She approached him and tried to talk. It had been fifteen years since she last saw him. His wife had long ago obtained a divorce. At first my mom was not sure if it was him, for he had changed so much. He was frail and his hair was almost all white. He needed a cane to walk. He pretended not to know her, “But I recognized his hands,” my mom tells me, “I’m sure it was him.” She pointed to the cane and he explained to her that he had had a stroke. He had difficulty walking now. She made out that he was living at some old people's shelter in the area. She offered him a dollar to take the bus and he took it. She has not seen him since. She later told Mr. Phanh's ex-wife about the encounter, but his wife did not believe it was him. She was sure he was dead. She had gone on with her life. She did not want to have anything more to do with him.


In this country we try to treat disabled people with respect and understanding. Most of us are willing to accommodate a person who is wheelchair-bound or one who is blind. If assistance is required, we are ready to help. But for those who we do not see as impaired, we are impatient and even rude when they do not live up to our expected standards. We deride them as incompetent, irresponsible, undisciplined, lazy, stupid. We often overlook the fact that there are many people around us who are suffering from disabilities that are not readily visible. Mental disorders such as PTSD, severe depression, schizophrenia, and dementia can be as debilitating as any physical disability. Those suffering from them, however, do not carry signs telling us of their condition. It is for us to educate ourselves, to refrain from quick judgment, to be more patient and more understanding when someone cannot keep up, cannot measure up, cannot put up. Let us give them assistance, not ridicule; support, not condemnation.

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