Sister Susan is a CNN Hero

Sister Susan McDonald

Sister Susan McDonaldSusan McDonald grew up in a small town in eastern Colorado. She was the oldest of nine children. Her dad was the longtime county sheriff. Her mom was a homemaker. When Sister Susan was 4, she decided she wanted to become a nun and take care of children who didn't have parents. She went to Loretto Heights College in Denver, a college run by the Sisters of Loretto. She joined the order. She also got a degree in nursing with an emphasis on pediatric nursing. She graduated in 1970. In the beginning of 1973, she saw a television report about Rosemary Taylor, an Australian who was working with abandoned children in Vietnam. Sister Susan wrote her a letter and offered to work for her. Taylor did not seem thrilled about having the services of the young nun. "I don't know where we'd put you", she wrote. "We're sleeping on the floor as it is. You'd be too busy to pray all the time. No thanks." Sister Susan wrote back, "I'm a pediatric nurse." In May 1973,she joined Taylor in Saigon.


Sister Susan McDonald and Rosemary TaylorIt was April 1975. The North Vietnamese Army was over running South Vietnam. Hue had fallen. Then Da Nang. Saigon would topple soon. Everybody knew it. Rosemary Taylor (on the right) had three nurseries. She worked mostly with infants because they were most at risk in the country's overcrowded orphanages."The infants were fed rice water," Sister Susan remembers. That's the water that rice is cooked in. It has nutrients, but almost no calories. The mortality rate was high. Taylor took infants who had no known histories — no known families, no known neighbors. There were many of these nameless children.Even before the chaos at the end, it was a refugee society, Sister Susan said. Babies were left at markets, churches, government offices and sometimes on the side of the road. Sister Susan ran one of Taylor's three nurseries. She lived in the place. It was her entire life. As the end approached, she and Taylor were desperate to get the kids out of the country. Orphanages were jammed, and had been for years. Adoptive families were waiting in the U.S. and Europe, but paperwork was lacking. In a city in chaos, how do you get necessary documentation? You don't. Besides, these were children whose identities were largely unknown.They had Vietnamese working for them, but who would pay them after Taylor and Sister Susan left? They pleaded with the U.S. Embassy for help. On April 4, the Embassy provided a C-5A Galaxy cargo transport plane. More than 300 children were loaded on the plane. Moments after takeoff, the rear door popped open and separated. The plane crashed, and 153 children died. After that disaster, benefactors chartered commercial planes. Approximately 3,000 of the children were put on planes and flown out of Vietnam as the North Vietnamese Army encircled Saigon. Sister Susan flew out on the last charter, four days before Saigon fell.

Post War

After Vietnam, Sister Susan worked as a nurse in a number of places, including Bangladesh, Guatemala and Haiti. For the last 10 years, she has worked with the children she helped bring out of Vietnam. She runs a Vietnamese Adoptee Services Program out of a home in Crestwood. It is not affiliated with the Sisters of Loretto, but the order provides room and board to let her do it. Often, the children — now young adults, of course — want to know as much as they can about their past. Sadly, there is little to learn. Sister Susan puts them in touch with other adoptees who came from the same orphanage. That is something. Several times she has taken small groups back to Vietnam. Three of the orphanages that used to feed the nurseries are still in existence — and it is emotional for the children to visit them — but most are gone. Sister Susan can only take the kids to the location where the orphanages used to be. But that too, is something. Next year will be the 40th Anniversary of the fall of Saigon Sister Susan will take the now adult adoptees back to Vietnam for an adoptee reunion where it all began!