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By James White
It is a touching story of kindness and friendship that spans continents and has endured for years.
A British grandmother who refused to give up on the Vietnamese boy suffering from a mystery skin condition after meeting him in an orphanage when he was aged just three.
Now the loving tale of the 15-year friendship between Brenda Smith, 78, and Min Anh – who is nicknamed Fish because of his debilitating scaly skin condition – is being told for the first time.
Every year since they met, devoted Brenda has left her home in Benfleet, Essex, to spend three months in Vietnam, visiting Min Anh and taking him out for day trips by motorbike.
The moving story of how Brenda single-handedly took on hospital authorities and transformed Min Anh’s life is the subject of a new Extraordinary People documentary.
Min Anh, nicknamed Ka, or fish, by fellow orphans at Tu Du Peace Village where he lives, was tied to his bed for hours because staff could not stop him scratching his itchy, scaly skin.
But Brenda, a grandmother of four and great grandmother of five, was determined to find medical help for Min Anh, to improve his everyday life, and his long term future.
Brenda, who has been widowed twice, first fell in love with Vietnam in 1995 when she cycled across the country for charity with her second husband Baz.
The couple met scores of children who had severe disabilities and birth defects caused by Agent Orange, a dangerous chemical left in the soil and water supply after the Vietnam War.
The pair returned to the UK determined to help the children, but as Baz took part in a charity swim he tragically suffered a heart attack and died suddenly at the age of 55.
Heartbroken Brenda planned one more visit to Vietnam in her husband’s memory. But while volunteering at an orphanage, she fell in love with brave Min Anh, who was dumped as a baby because of his scaly skin caused by a genetic condition.
‘All he wanted to do was sit in my lap,’ she said. ‘I sat there for a couple of hours and didn’t want to move. I just fell in love with him and it’s been like that ever since.’
Min Anh filled a gap in the lonely pensioner’s life after losing her beloved husband, giving her a new purpose and a reason to keep returning to Vietnam.
Min Anh has often been strapped to chairs and beds by orphanage staff in a bid to stop him scratching his skin
The pair found a way of communicating, even though Min Anh, now 18, doesn’t speak English, and Brenda knows no Vietnamese.
The determined widow, who has three grown up daughters, took on hospital authorities who left Min Anh tied to his bed for hours because they didn’t know how to treat him.
‘When I first went to see him at Tu Du Hospital, he was tied up from morning to night, so he wouldn’t scratch himself,’ said Brenda.
‘The staff didn’t know how to help him. I hated to see him like that, without any toys or amusement.’
But Brenda’s persistence paid off, and staff allowed the kindly English lady to untie Min Anh and take him out for day trips around Ho Chi Min City.
Trips out: Brenda has taken the orphan on numerous trips in his home city to improve his quality of life
Care: Brenda and Minh have formed an unbreakable bond that has lasted for 15 years
A Vietnamese friend loaned Brenda a motorbike, so she could drive around the streets with Min Anh, taking in all the sights and sounds.
Brenda took her young friend to shops and restaurants, buying him meals, clothes and toys, and treating him like her adoptive son.
‘When I took him out for pizza, he ate normally. He just needs someone to spend time with him,’ said Brenda.
‘Just walking around the supermarket is like a treat to Min Anh because the cold air soothes his skin.
‘When we got back to the ward, he’d walk back to his bed and tie himself up again because he was used to it.’
Brenda admits her daughters Carol, 55, Deborah, 52, and Claire, 38, at first thought she was crazy to be so attached to a boy on the other side of the world.
‘They’d say: “Oh mum, why do you want to speak your time worrying about a boy who lives thousands of miles away?”,’ she said.
Brenda, a former secretary who has no medical knowledge, spent years trying to find a doctor to diagnose Min Anh’s skin condition but had no idea where to start.
She said: ‘When it was time to go back to England it was heartbreaking.
‘Min Anh always said he loves me very much, and understands that I have to go home. But he’d be waiting for me.
‘I knew if I could get him help, he wouldn’t be tied up anymore.’
The documentary, A Boy They Call Fish, follows Brenda’s most recent visit to Vietnam in early 2012, as an expert dermatologist is called in to try to diagnose and treat Min Anh.
Brenda is also determined to find a friend for the teenager, to look out for him and take him on days out when she is not there.
The film follows her efforts to find answers for Min Anh’s rare skin condition and to transform the boy’s life for the better.
A new Extraordinary People documentary, The Boy They Call Fish, airs on Channel 5 at 9pm on Thursday June 21.