Tuesday, May 21, 2013 | 2 a.m.
Dao Vahn lost nearly everything to cervical cancer.
The 52-year-old mother lost her health, her house and almost her business.
Vahn's youngest son, Michael Luangrath, did everything he could to help his single mother. Luangrath dropped out of college and quit his job to care for his sick mother and her small grocery store in downtown Las Vegas.
It was a difficult time, Luangrath says, but they managed to survive. Vahn got better and moved into a small one-bedroom apartment. Luangrath went back to school, graduated and secured a job in Internet sales.
Both mother and son grew stronger from the experience. Despite their modest accommodations, they said they learned to cherish every moment they have together — and to love and appreciate each other better.
Earlier this month, Luangrath surprised Vahn with the ultimate Mother's Day gift: a house to call her own again.
Luangrath, 29, posted a video to YouTube of his mom's stunned reaction. Over the past week, it garnered nearly a million views and thousands of heartfelt comments from people around the world.
"I just wanted to show people how great my mom is," Luangrath said. "I'm really proud of her.
"She's the one who raised me. She's the reason why I am the man I am today."
In 1980, Vahn immigrated to the United States as a political refugee. She was fleeing from communists in her native Laos, in Southeast Asia.
At the time, Vahn had three children and another on the way. She had no money and couldn't speak English.
Vahn moved her family to California, where they worked on farms. They eventually made their way to Las Vegas, where in 1989, Vahn opened one of the first Asian grocery stores in town on East Fremont Street.
For nearly a quarter-century, Vahn worked seven days a week at Sisters Oriental Market. As a young boy helping out at the family store, Luangrath recalled how hard and long his mother worked for their family.
"She works 13, 14 hours a day, and comes home completely exhausted," Luangrath said. "For years, I've always wanted to do something for my mom, but I didn't have the means to. I just wanted to give her someplace comfortable."
His plans were set back when Vahn was diagnosed with cervical cancer in 2002. At the time, Luangrath had just graduated from Las Vegas High School and was in the middle of his studies at College of Southern Nevada.
Although Vahn underwent a hysterectomy, the cancer had spread to her lower abdomen, threatening her life again. Luangrath knew he had to do something.
"When it hit me (that my mother could die), it was just a wake-up call," he said. "My mom is the nucleus of our family and the face of our market. I just realized that if my mom's not there, we're done.
"I had to make a decision."
Luangrath dropped out of school and quit his bank-teller job when Vahn began chemotherapy and radiation treatments.
Every morning, Luangrath fed Vahn and took her to her treatments. Every afternoon, Luangrath headed over to his mother's Asian market and worked until closing time.
It was a tough burden for Luangrath, who was just 18 at the time. While his friends were enjoying the first years of adulthood — going out and going to college — Luangrath was at home caring for his sick mother.
Over the course of a year, Vahn lost 80 pounds and much of her hair. She had the mobility of a 70-year-old, Luangrath said.
"I slowly saw my mom deteriorating," Luangrath said. "My mother was very, very weak."
Just when everything seemed grim, Luangrath said he turned to a "higher power" for inner strength. He began praying and trying to be positive around his mother.
Although Vahn was weak physically, she was a strong and resilient fighter, Luangrath said. After the battery of treatments, Vahn eventually beat cancer.
"It was remarkable," Luangrath said of his mom's recovery. "It was a miracle."
When his mother started working at the store again in 2004, Luangrath went back to college. He attended a small Bible college in Missouri, hoping to become a pastor.
Over the next four years, Luangrath racked up student loans and credit card debt. Back home in Las Vegas, the outlook for Vahn wasn’t so good either.
Business was slowing at Sisters Oriental Market. The double-whammy of the recession and increased competition from newer Asian grocery stores in Chinatown was taking its toll.
At the same time, Vahn's medical bills from her cancer treatments began piling up.
In the middle of the worst recession in more than 50 years, Vahn declared bankruptcy. Like so many Las Vegans, she eventually lost her home.
In college, Luangrath knew nothing of his family's troubles. Like many college students, Luangrath called home periodically, asking for a few hundred dollars to make ends meet.
But even though Vahn had her own financial burden, she always obliged, sending her son money for rent, tuition and textbooks.
"My mom kept that world away from me. I didn't know she was struggling," Luangrath said. "But she was always there for me."
After he graduated, Luangrath quickly learned the truth. His childhood home was gone, his mother had moved into a small one-bedroom apartment, and the family-owned business was in peril.
Luangrath started working as a substitute teacher for the Clark County School District but quickly realized he couldn't make enough money to pay off his student debt and help his mother financially. So, Luangrath turned to a childhood passion.
Since he was 12 years old, Luangrath was fascinated by cars. As a teenager — in between working at his family store — Luangrath took apart his older sister's car and replaced its broken engine.
Luangrath turned his love of cars into a side business, selling automotive parts on eBay and Craigslist. It turned into quite a lucrative operation, making a quarter of a million dollars in sales last year, Luangrath said.
After making a dent in his credit card and student loan debt, Luangrath had some money left over. For his New Year's resolution, Luangrath vowed to purchase his first house — not for himself, but for his mother.
"She's getting up in age. She needs the comfort more than myself," he said. "She started from nothing. I said, 'One day, I'm going to give back to my mom.'"
After filing his taxes in March, Luangrath turned to his accountant and real estate agent, Diane Sirikhan, and told her of his New Year's resolution.
"We got to do this," Luangrath said. "This is my goal."
Sirikhan, a family friend who shops at Vahn's market, agreed to help and the two went to work.
Over the next six weeks until Mother's Day, Sirikhan and Luangrath viewed hundreds of home listings online and looked at more than a dozen properties in person.
Luangrath wanted a single-story house that was close to the freeway, so his mother – who has a bad leg – could easily move around and get to work. He also wanted a house in a nice neighborhood after growing up in east Las Vegas.
Shortly before Mother's Day, Luangrath found the perfect home in North Las Vegas, just off Interstate 15 and Craig Road, near Shadow Creek Golf Course. The house had three bedrooms, a backyard and a two-car garage.
"I just looked at it and said, 'This is the one I want for my mom,'" Luangrath said. "I wanted to give her something new and someplace I would want to live in. Something good."
However, time was running out. On the Thursday before Mother's Day, Luangrath wired a 5 percent down payment on the house. By Friday, Luangrath was supposed to get the title and keys to his mother's new house. They didn't come.
Around 4 p.m. Friday, Luangrath called Sirikhan, pressing her about the delay.
"It has to be on Mother's Day to make it special," Luangrath said. "I really want to surprise her."
Over the next hour, Sirikhan shot off dozens of emails and made several phone calls. The keys came through.
"It was like a roller coaster, but I'm so happy (he did it)," Sirikhan said. "It's just an amazing gift. (Luangrath) is just what any mother would want her son to be."
Around lunchtime, Luangrath — wearing a suit and bow tie — strolls into Sisters Oriental Market. His friend is with him, filming the entire proceedings.
Initially, Vahn thought Luangrath was going to take her out to a fancy lunch. Through the years, her children have given her many gifts for Mother's Day — new shoes and dresses — but she couldn't have imagined what present was in store this year.
Under the guise of picking up a friend, Luangrath drives his mother to a suburban block filled with stucco homes and green patches of grass. In the middle of the sidewalk, Luangrath chokes back tears as he addresses his mother.
"You know, you work so hard all the time," he tells Vahn before presenting her with a small box. "I said when I get some money, I was going to buy you good things."
Vahn opens the blue box, takes out a silver key and asks, "What is this?"
Luangrath tells her, "It's a house, Mom."
Vahn starts crying and gives her son a big hug. She pulls back her sunglasses and wipes away the tears streaming down her face.
"My mom is a very, very strong woman," Luangrath said later. "She's not one to cry. To see her cry like that, that meant the world to me."
"I'm happy. It was a dream to have a house again," Vahn said. "It's a beautiful house. I'm very proud of (Michael)."
Since posting a video of the exchange on YouTube, Luangrath's story went viral. On Monday, his video had more than 970,000 views and 3,000 comments from viewers around the world.
The video was featured on Yahoo News and the Huffington Post and was posted to websites in Canada, Spain, Sweden, the United Kingdom and back in Vahn's homeland.
"It's been weird. I didn't think the reaction was going to be this big, " Luangrath said. "I think it's inspired people to treat their moms better. I'm really excited by that, that people won't take their moms for granted."
Besides paying off the mortgage, Luangrath is working on upgrading his mother's market with $12,000 community reinvestment grant from the city of Las Vegas. He is looking at designing a new logo for the store and changing the business from a grocery store to more of a deli.
"I really want to take her business to the next level," Luangrath said.