By Magdalena Guillen

Click images to see larger version and captions.
Photo credit: Magdalena Guillen and courtesy Mai-Linh Notaro.

Dr. Nga Le closes her eyes as she moves the cold stethoscope across the infant’s mosquito-bitten chest. In a whisper, she tells the patient to inhale and exhale. Her left hand juggles the squirming infant while her right holds her instrument. Her ear and stethoscope become one.

The slender pediatrician opens her eyes as her patient’s last exhalation slowly comes out.

Le, 52, has returned for the first time to Vietnam after she fled the country 38 years ago.

Now, Le, a successful pediatrician in New York, has returned to her native country with Project Vietnam, a nonprofit organization that conducts medical missions in impoverished areas of Vietnam, where medical aid is not readily available. Her physician husband, John Notaro and two of their three children, Marcus and Mai-Linh join her on their first medical mission.

In a small hospital room, in the Vietnamese district of Cam Lam, Le treats many of the hundreds of malnourished children who are waiting outside hospital doors. Their small thin bodies are covered in rashes and their watery eyes convey disease.

As she tries to communicate with the children’s parents, she informs them of the precautions and instructions they must follow in order to treat their child, but her broken Vietnamese requires her to seek help from a translator.

“You see patients and there [may] be a language barrier and [cultural] expectations may be different, but the disease is still the same,” says Le. “It’s nice that you can contribute something toward that.”

The return to Vietnam rekindles memories for Le as she returns to the city she once called home.

Although Vietnam has changed, her memory of it remains the same.

“You become apprehensive coming back,” says Le. “It’s a touchy feeling because you’ve been away for so long.”

Her eyes close as she recalls the childhood memory that changed her life.

A week before Saigon fell to the communists, in April 1975, Le’s father, a senator in the Republic of South Vietnam, knew that the city would soon fall to the Northern Vietnamese regime and feared reprisals. He arranged for his daughters to flee to France by plane and planned for him, his wife and Le’s older brother to join them soon after.

It was scary for the two teenage girls to be traveling alone, she says. To this day she remembers the hot burning stares she felt as she walked through the airport.

After a week in France, she lost all contact with her parents and older brother.

“We did not know whether they were still alive.”

Le and her sister did not know that South Vietnam had been taken over, and the lack of news made them anxious. She feared the worst.

After what seemed like an eternity, Le and her sister finally heard from their parents and brother in July. They managed to escape by boat to Guam and planned to migrate to the United States.

After a couple of months later, their family received sponsorship to leave Guam and re-settle in Ocala, Fla.

In the meantime, Le and her sister continued with their lives in France.

The pitch of her voice grows higher as she recalls the frustration she felt.

“You see, I don’t speak French, so I did nothing!” she says. “I stayed home and tried to help out. It was stressful, you try to pick up the language at home until you get comfortable enough to try and test into kindergarten but at 14 [or] 15, that’s not something you want to hear.”

It wasn’t until she started to pick up the language that she could then try to test into school. But the language barrier seemed miniscule compared to the attitude of the French she encountered. Their rude stares and unfriendly gestures to the foreigner tormented her as she tried to adapt.

Finally, five months after leaving Saigon, her sister and Le were finally reunited with their family in Ocala.

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Over the course of several years, Le completed her undergraduate education and continued to medical school. She set her sight on Albany Medical Center in Albany, N.Y to complete her residency. It was there where she met her husband.

“Everybody knew her as the pediatric resident from Vietnam, she just didn’t know it,” said her husband.

The two new residents met through Le’s roommate during a resident dinner get-together. Le said about three words to him that night. He thought he was defeated.

A year later, they married and had their first child, Mai-Linh, the following year.

At 24, Mai-Linh and her mother travel for the first time together to Vietnam. Although she says that her mother isn’t an emotional person, Le’s reactions have been impossible to miss as they visit her old home and family.

“When she first saw her old house, she started laughing and told us, because the way the house is [facing], it’s back to back with [a] temple,” says Mai-Linh. “She told [us] that her and her brother and sister, when they were like kids, [they would] play in the backyard and pretend they were like Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys and spy on the monks.”

Although she felt strange seeing her old home boarded up and almost unrecognizable, she was proud to show her children.

“I’m proud to show my kids where I grew up,” says Le. “To show them we come from small things.”

The 38-year absence made visiting her family difficult. She struggled to recognize her aunts and cousins, who were once constant in her life.

“It was nice seeing my family,” says Le. “It’s has been so long that you forget how they look like.”

Although it was difficult for Le to recognize her family’s faces, it was even more difficult to recognize Saigon. She recalls a different city, with smaller and less congested streets.

The sprawling skyscrapers fill the small gaps in Saigon and zooming motorbikes now replace a city once filled with bicycles.

“As she [surveyed] the landscape, I didn’t see a flicker of familiarity in her eyes. Until one moment when her [family] took us to her grandfather’s house,” says her husband John. “Then we went through those gates, through the courtyard, where he lived in those days; then I saw the flicker in her eyes that said, ‘this is Saigon.’”

The streets may be more congested and crowded in the unrecognizable city she once called home but a visit to her native country has rekindled her childhood memories of Vietnam.

The importance of giving back to the people is greater than anything in the world. And that, is reason enough to want to return.

The next patient comes in, in that small room in Cam Lam, Vietnam and Le closes her eyes once more.

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