Stem cell donor denied US entry 3 times as sister's life hangs in the balance

Kamini Ramdeen, AOL.com

On February 14, 2017, Helen Huynh, a Vietnamese mother from Garden Grove, California, was diagnosed with an aggressive form of acute myeloid leukemia. Despite her dismally low chances of finding a stem cell donor through the system, the Huynh family luckily found the perfect match in Helen’s sister, Thuy Nguyen, who resides in Vietnam.

However, her family's hope for the future soon slipped away as officials denied the sister and would-be stem donor entry into the United States on three separate occasions.

Before her diagnosis, Helen lived an active life, visiting the gym daily, gardening, cooking, caring for her daughter Tiffany, who has down syndrome, and spending time with her grandchild. Although her cancer diagnosis came as a shock to her family, the Huynhs remained undeterred and took quick action to help their loved one.

The Huynhs initially applied for a visa to allow Nguyen to come to the U.S. and give Helen what would have been a life-saving stem cell donation, but their request was rejected.

"After the first denial, we thought, 'no problem,'" Yvonne Aivan Murray, Helen's daughter, told AOL. "We thought someone woke up and just wanted to make someone else's life miserable. But, when we got denied the second time, we started panicking and got a congressman involved and he received the same denial letter. The only difference was his was signed and ours was not."

RELATED: Helen Huynh before and after her leukemia diagnosis

The family provided additional information to the immigration office, even getting hospitals involved to write letters on Helen's behalf explaining how critical this visa was.

"We have two letters from two hospitals, the first one was from City of Hope, stating that time was of the essence and it was an emergency," Murray said. "The second letter, which came after we were denied twice, was from UCI Medical Center and explicitly stated that my aunt would return to Vietnam after the transplant, but still we were denied."

"My aunt submitted bank statements, she has multiple businesses and real estate in Vietnam, she even has a five-year-old son that she would be leaving behind to come to the U.S. and perform this transplant, and they still denied her visa," she added.

The government maintains that the family has been unable to meet sufficient standards.

"Regrettably Ms. Nguyen was unable to establish to the satisfaction of the interviewing officer that her employment, financial and family situation in Vietnam constituted sufficient ties to compel her to depart the United States at the end of her temporary stay," the U.S. Consulate General's office in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam wrote in response to a letter written by Rep. Alan Lowenthal on the family's behalf. 

When asked how Murray felt after the last denial, she had three simple words: "I feel betrayed."

"We were frustrated and upset and I don't want to make it a political situation, it's more humanitarian and medical, but I feel betrayed because my dad fought alongside Americans in the Vietnam War and we were invited here after the war," Murray continued. "My dad was put into a re-education camp in Vietnam, similar to what John McCain went through, for eight years. And my first memory of him after he was out was when we bought me a globe and pointed to America and he kept saying that we would go there and have freedom."

In 1991, the Huynh family would move to America and start a brand new life away from war-torn Vietnam. In order to make ends meet, Vien Huynh, Helen's husband of 35 years, would take on several odd jobs, delivering pizza and newspapers, ironing shirts for 15 cents a piece and handing out coupons in front of Disneyland, all while attending college to learn English.

"My parents always said that America took us in and we were so grateful to be Americans," Murray said.

As Helen’s health further declines, the Huynh family remains hopeful that Nguyen will be able to gain entry to the U.S., as doctors have not ruled out a stem cell transplant. Still, they have told the family to prepare for end-of-life comfort care.

"When she was first diagnosed, I approached my dad and sister and told them we should look into mortuaries since I work at a hospice, and they shut me down," Murray said. "But as of right now, my dad is actively shopping for mortuaries."

With all options seemingly exhausted, Murray says her family hopes continued media attention may inspire a powerful politician to help bring her aunt to the U.S. for this life-saving treatment. 

"This is going to come up again in other communities and it is a flaw in the visa process and it needs to change," Murray said. "Because no one else should have to go through what we're going through."


A GoFundMe page has been set up to help the Huynhs with unexpected expenses as they take time off work to stay with Helen and to provide funding for pending funeral arrangements.

AOL has reached out for comment from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services office in Santa Ana, California.