Reporting by Andrea Ayala, Photographs by David Le
Click on any photos to see larger version and captions.
Jack Cruse-Mulhal waves his hand softly in front of the little boy and points to his hand. He stamps it to make sure he can keep track of who has come in. The shy boy scratches his head full of thick black hair as he bows and waits for instructions. Jack is an American 12-year-old boy, the other is a Vietnamese patient about the same age, and has just come out of getting a filling. He cradles his right cheek, trying to contain the cotton gauze the dentists have put over his incision.
Jack hands the young boy a lollipop, as well as a toothbrush and toothpaste. The boy accepts the gifts without excitement or hesitation. Jack quickly gets on his knees and searches a large plastic bag feverishly. The little girls before him received furry bears and colorful animals, but Jack stops when he sees a six-inch Spiderman figurine. He looks at the toy with boyish appreciation, as if he wouldn’t mind having the toy himself. He gets up, cleans off his knees and hands the toy to the boy who is his same size. The Vietnamese boy looks at the toy with surprise and excitement—he smiles.
Jack’s mother, Suzanne, doesn’t watch Jack as he works; she is in a nearby room helping with fillings. It’s important, she says, for him to experience what life is like abroad, so he can remember that people everywhere are the same. This is Suzanne and Jack’s first mission with Project Vietnam.
Suzanne brushes a stray hair out of her tight strawberry blonde ponytail before running to pick up some tools for the doctors. As a corporate attorney, the medical world should be a challenge to adjust to, but Suzanne moves swiftly from one area to another—she understands what tools are needed and she knows the drill when it comes to the procedures. Suzanne learns quickly.
Jack and Suzanne are part of the dental team for the Project Vietnam Foundation, a nonprofit organization which consists of different departments that provides free health care services for resource-limited areas in Vietnam.
They are just a few of the many volunteers that help the Project Vietnam dental team run, without any background in medicine whatsoever. The dental team for Project Vietnam is composed of volunteer doctors from New York, Oregon and California, their assistants and non-dentist volunteers.
* * *
It is the first day of the mission and the Project Vietnam team waits. This is the third delay.
There is tension in the lobby of the hotel. The mission was nearly cancelled the day before, and another delay could mean bad news. Members sit in the neat lobby couches, fidgeting with their hands, wondering if they’ve gotten their hopes up, again, for nothing. A few of them, trying to stay positive, walk to a nearby beach, one of the many very popular and stylish Nha Trang destinations. The irony of the luxury of Nha Trang is unsettling. Tom Tran, the dental team leader for Project Vietnam, runs in and out of the building and can be seen outside speaking frantically on his cellphone.
Then, like a champion reveling in his victory, Tom announces with his hands in the air, “Time to go!”
It is quiet in the hospital: A large fairly new building painted white in every corner. The strong sun rays beat down heavily on the faces of the team as they set up shop in Cam Lam, located in the province of Khanh Hoa. Although scheduled to start early in the morning, delays from the local government have forced them to start at 9:30 a.m.
The delays prove to be only a slight setback to the spirit of the dental team; they are excited to begin. It is late morning and the crew is full of energy.
The team has gotten to know each other a little bit more by now and have a system down. Cathy Pham, Tran’s wife, sets up dental chairs, pulling plastic over a chair making sure it’s neat. Roger Lutz, another engineer, sets cables on the ground and tapes them along the floor edges of the wall, making sure they are out of the dental staff’s way. Darrol and Lynn Chenn set up the fillings stations in the back corner of the room as their son, Derrick, helps. The back corner of the hospital building, where the dental team is stationed is joined by another intruder, the heat. It creeps in and sticks to every surface it can reach, including the diligent staff workers who try to ignore it.
* * *
Tran began his “dental career” in college. After working on a thermodynamics project at Virginia Tech, he got a severe toothache.
“When I came to the United States in 1975, I did not have any kind of health insurance at all,” Tran said. The night before his Thermodynamics exam, the pain of the toothache made it nearly impossible to focus.
“It hurt so bad, so I couldn’t study any longer but I decided, [I’m] gonna pull it out one way or the other,” Tran said. “So maybe it’s around 12 O’clock at night I told my brother, ‘Hey Joe, get a little nose plier and pull my [tooth] out.’”
Tran used some whiskey to rinse his mouth while his brother Joe sanitized the pliers on the stove.
Tran then braced himself for the pain.
“I [held] onto the doorknob and [opened] my mouth and [said], ‘Yank it!’ and he pulled it,” Tran said. “I [felt] hurt but not so hurt anymore, but at the point I [was] able to go back and focus and study for the exam tomorrow.”
That painful college experience helps him empathize, said Tran, with those who do not have medical services available, especially in Vietnam.
“This is one of the reasons why I think helping the poor kids here is very important,” Tran said.
* * *
The dental team focuses exclusively on children. Most children have never seen a dentist, for adults it is much too late. There are four parts to the dental team’s services:
- Part 1- Lining up Yen is a 9-year-old girl who is visiting Project Vietnam’s dental team services. She does not speak English, so she does not understand when she is asked by one of the non-Vietnamese dental team members to line-up against the wall if she wants to keep her place. She eventually gets the hint when the man beckons her with his hand.
- Part 2- Waiting
Yen lines up early in the morning, around 9 a.m.—it is hot and humid as she covers her dark brown eyes with her hand. Children around her are talking, but Yen stays quiet, she is patiently waiting-—for what? She doesn’t know. She just knows her mother asked her to line up.
- Part 3- Getting diagnosed At noon, Yen has finally made it to the front of the line. She watches other children come out from the room in the back corner of the hospital, crying. Her facial expression shows growing concern. She does not know what is coming, but she knows it might not be good. At a small rickety table, a makeshift nurse’s office, Yen is asked to open her mouth and is diagnosed by a nurse. There are only two procedures: Fill-ins or extractions. Yen is given a piece of paper, which in English states “one fill-in, one extraction.”
- Part 4- Procedures
Yen hands the paper to the other nurse who comes up to her. The nurse leads her into a room where a doctor gives Yen with her first ever filling. Next, she is led into another room where another doctor provides her with an extraction. Slowly, a small flow of tears form in Yen’s patient eyes as the procedure is finished. As part of her reward, Yen is given a toy, a toothbrush and toothpaste. She’s even taught how to use it by Jack, one of the volunteers.
* * *
It is the second day of the mission and Brian Nguyen is loading the bus, beaming. He was fast asleep the night before when he got a phone call from home: He’s finally gotten into dental school. He will be attending Roseman University College of Dental Medicine in the fall.
The natural brush of the Cam Lam region whizzes past the bus’ glass windows in a blur as Brian explains that he owes a lot of his admission to Project Vietnam.
Five years ago he was inexperienced when, as a dental assistant to Cathy, he was asked to join Project Vietnam. He recalls Cathy asking him to be a part of Project Vietnam in 2009.
He’d inevitably heard about the project but he was hesitant to become involved. He didn’t know if he could handle it, he says.
“I started working here for a little while more and I saw her committed to it so I was like ‘Ok, let’s do it,’” Nguyen said. Nguyen decided to participate in Project Vietnam in 2010. When he finally decided to become a part of it, the experience changed him. He loved making a difference, he loved the challenge. It was eye-opening.
Admission into dental school means that this is the last day, not just for the mission for Brian, but with Project Vietnam— at least for a long time. Since he started as a dental assistant in 2008, Brian has grown close to the medical team he’s worked with, Cathy has become like his aunt. Seeing Project Vietnam with his own eyes took away Nguyen’s initial fear of being involved with the organization, he was thrilled to be there every day.
“It was a really amazing experience to actually see what they do,” said Nguyen.For Nguyen, it is people like Tran and Pham, with an intense perseverance and drive, who make Project Vietnam so exceptional. These people have taught him about the importance of conquering fear, for the sake of good. Much more than helping people receive basic dental care, he has learned how to become a doctor with heart. Those are the lessons he will never forget.