“My fight is not yet over,” W.T. White alumnus says
Henry Nguyen’s young adulthood has been punctuated with hospital stays, surgeries, and treatments for cancer.
His senior year at W.T. White brought a diagnosis of osteosarcoma after knee pain initially written off as a sports injury didn’t go away.
It was easy to write off because he played football and basketball, his sister, Anh Pham, said. But before he could graduate with the rest of the class of 2016, he found himself instead navigating chemotherapy and doctor’s visits.
“He was very active in sports, played on the basketball team, and at that current time football. He worked part-time at Whataburger,” his sister said. “As soon as he was of age to work, he was on it.”
Henry continued to make inroads at adulthood while battling cancer. He began working at an auto shop, but knee pain again alerted his doctors that cancer had returned. He started chemo again and had a full knee replacement.
He recovered and got a job working at a call center. He moved out on his own. He helped care for his father and grandmother, who both emigrated from Vietnam before he was born.
By 2019, knee pain sent him to the hospital again. He was unable to avoid amputation this time. He was angry, he was sad, and he frequently woke up screaming from the pain.
He had to move back home.
“He recovered physically but not mentally,” his sister said.
By July 2020, Henry was back in the hospital.
“Unfortunately this time, the masses in my lungs are too large to operate on,” he wrote on his Facebook page, with a picture of his smiling face. “Chemotherapy is no longer effective at this point. I will be leaving the hospital to start a new journey in my life: a painless journey where I get closer to God and one where I learn to live with my cancer till my time is up. My fight is not yet over, so I ask of everyone who reads this to keep me in your prayers as I continue to battle day by day.”
Pham said that she had a gut feeling even before then – call it sisterly intuition – that something was wrong.
“August 19, he was released into my care for hospice,” his sister said. “He was in the hospital for a month prior to being released. He came in with chest pain and hard breathing. He got tested for COVID the month before but the test came back negative.
“We kind of knew then that it was most likely his cancer. I saw this coming, about a month before,” Pham added. “I just had a feeling and had told my partner that I thought he was not going to be around for long.”
He had a stint at Parkland’s intensive care unit before getting a triad of bad news – he’d need a ventilator but if he was put on one, he might never wake up; his heart was under a lot of pressure from the nodes, but the procedure to fix that would probably kill him; and doing nothing would mean that pneumonia or the cancer would kill him.
“I can’t just die, I haven’t gone anywhere or done anything for this world.”
“So he signed a non-resuscitation order as well as a wavier to void the ventilator,” Pham said, adding that she became not only his biggest advocate, but also his legal one as he signed his power of attorney over to her.
“He is currently 22 years old,” she said. “He turns 23 on this coming Nov. 18, I do not think he will make it till then.”
His sister and family have been working ever since to keep him comfortable, his spirits up, and provide him with chances to do things he had always wanted to do while there was still time.
He had a backyard union ceremony with his longtime girlfriend, Wendy.
“The day before his release, I went on a ring hunt for both of them,” Pham said. “I didn’t want him to go home and just die. He needed to have his last say and final wishes.
“I knew he would never be able to propose to Wendy and never be able to marry her. So I asked him when we had a knowing of his coming home if he like to do a small ceremony with her – not a marriage but a union ceremony.”
When Henry said yes, his sister began working to make that ceremony happen. She found rings at James Avery and a special necklace Henry picked out with the help of a video call.
“I told him that she would be happy if he made a grass ring for her, no worries. It’s the thoughts that counts,” she said.
Pham said that she worked the day of the festivities, and tried to keep a happy face for her clients, but “really deep down, it was sad all over. It made me think about the day that Henry will never see.”
A photographer offered to shoot the ceremony for free when she heard what Pham was doing. Friends came to decorate the backyard and set up for the ceremony.
Another friend – Maria Estrada – brought folding chairs, tables, decorations, and food.
“She went above and beyond! We hung lights, fabrics, etc to make their ceremony look more dreamy,” she said. “God sent me her, it was amazing.”
The offers for more help with the ceremony kept coming. A videographer offered to film the ceremony, but Pham said she wasn’t sure Henry would agree – he was shy about his amputated leg, and how skinny and pale he is from being so sick.
But he agreed.
At one point, Pham was unsure the ceremony would happen. Henry was in a lot of pain that day. He slept a lot the day before.
“I was so scared he was not going to make Sunday ceremony,” she said. “I woke him up 40 minutes prior to the service, gave him time to wake up from the meds I gave him. He pulled through – a little tired and lethargic – but he made it.”
Needless to say, there was not a dry eye in that North Dallas backyard as the 15 people who gathered (counting the videographer and photographer) prayed with Wendy and Henry and watched them exchange rings. At the end of the ceremony, the two privately exchanged their vows, out of the view of their guests.
“It was sad to watch, Wendy tried very hard not to cry,” Pham recalled. “Henry was trooper, not a drop!”
He stayed up later than Pham thought he would that night – til midnight or so – celebrating with his family and friends.
After that, he rested. He spent time with family. He battled a fever.
“He was so bored and waiting to die in my house… it felt wrong,” Pham said. “He clearly was in a worse state when he came back from the the hospital but gotten much better – way better. I was concerned if this was that boost that every one was talking about?
“I even called Dr.Wang to ask, she said some people before dying have a big boost of energy and then go after,” Pham said. What Henry really wanted to do was to see the mountains in Colorado.
“I can’t just die, I haven’t gone anywhere or done anything for this world,” he told Pham.
“The oncologist did not really want to state the time he has left. They just told him it was short and to go home, be with family,” Pham said. “But I spoke to Dr.Winnie Wang, his palliative care physician for the current and his previous cancer. She’s been so wonderful and great with Henry in his journey.
“Even on this trip, we would have not made it here if it wasn’t for her prescription for his portable oxygen concentration machine and a portable mini travel size oxygen machine,” she said. “She really has been kind in helping us make this trip happen. She was straight forward with me after I asked her and let her know my idea of taking him out of town for a trip. She said based on others that she has seen in the past, it’s a matter of weeks, not months. I appreciated her honesty. He came home and I knew his time was short.”
So they set up a GoFundMe campaign to finance an RV trip to Colorado. Henry saw the mountains, made it to the Royal Gorge, saw the Garden of the Gods, and ate Cajun food.
Henry’s home now and resting off his trip. He’d like to see the beaches at Galveston next.
“I told him we can go somewhere if he is up to it again,” Pham said.
“I know he his tired. He is just hanging in for all the last goodbyes, farewells, and last time seeing people,” she said. “He truly is a fighter.”
Right now, his sister watches anxiously as Henry begins to slow. His heart is showing more signs of stress. He needs more pain medication.
“He is in good spirits, enjoying our dog dearly and other visiting pets. He also is enjoying the entire season of Z Nation right now,” Pham told friends in a Facebook group she uses to provides updates. “He is on the episode of little blue baby Lucy born and given away. But due to pain and his condition, he is currently not going anywhere. He only wants to stay home.”