Reporting by Vanessa Martinez, Photographs by David Le
Click on any photos to see larger version and captions.
Nearly 100 arms stretch out toward the three Project Vietnam Foundation volunteers in sky blue polo shirts cornered at the entrance of a small storage room at the Cam Lam General Hospital. The room has been designated as a pharmacy, with boxes of eyeglasses, medicine and multivitamins stacked along the four walls and floor .
The patients become uneasy and scream at the volunteers who frantically try to dispense prescriptions. Despite the chaos, the volunteers assist each person until the crowd diminishes.
The team of 85 volunteers traveled from the United States to Vietnam with the the Project.
The nonprofit organization, founded in 1996 under the auspices of the American Academy of Pediatrics, provides free medical, dental and surgical help to families in impoverished areas of Vietnam. Project Vietnam has touched the lives of more than 60,000 Vietnamese in half of the country’s provinces.
Over the years, the organization has grown and expanded to work with Helping Babies Breathe and developed a side project, Bright Futures, which aims to improve the accuracy medical diagnoses in children.
Dr. Quynh Kieu, 63, one of the founders of the organization and a pediatrician in Fountain Valley, says that as American-trained doctors, Project Vietnam can do more what Vietnamese physicians can. “With all my friends, with all the groups who contribute and all the specialists — pediatric specialists — who come about and contribute, [...] we’re able to do things that if I was just a pediatrician in Vietnam, I may not be able to achieve,” she says. “It’s not easy to change the guidelines or help establish things if you’re within a communist country. So, [...] as a group from outside, we’re able to do that.”
From the onset, Project Vietnam focused on performing cleft lip-palate reconstructive surgery.
Chan’s expertise in anaesthesia proved helpful in performing successful surgeries that would change the lives of these children, Quynh says.
“A lot of children, especially in the rural areas, have uncorrected cleft lip-palate, which not only is very disfiguring but they don’t talk right, they can’t eat right and then they are at risk for hearing loss and a lot of other things as well,” she says. “So, we felt that this was something which would have obvious impact [and] would be very dramatic.”
Because of the life-changing surgeries performed, many of the patients reach out to the volunteers years after. “Once you do it, you never can stop,” he says. “You see the people, even in Vietnam or Cambodia are very poor and the surgery we do — one hour, or a little bit over an hour — you change the life of the people.”
Chan says that most of those children are often teased in school and sometimes stop attending. The correctional surgery gives them an opportunity to return to school and have an easier time and learn without being bullied again.
With the help of Medical Missions Foundation, a volunteer-based, non-profit organization from Kansas, Project Vietnam traveled with 17 people on their first trip in 1996 to the Vietnamese province of Quang Binh.
Two years later, with a total of 23 people, Project Vietnam completed their first official trip to Ninh Binh, complete with both a primary care team and a surgery team. Quynh says she still remembers a case in that mission that really impacted her.
The only obstetrician on the trip saw a woman diagnosed with cervical cancer. Despite knowing the severity of her diagnosis, she declined a referral to a hospital in Hanoi, Quynh says.
“But you must!”
“I have children. Who can take care of my children?”
“You have to arrange it somehow because then you need to be around a lot longer.”
The woman began to count where she stood.
“How long do you think I would live if I don’t get treatment?”
“It’s hard to tell … five years? About?”
“By then my oldest daughter will be old enough to care [for] my children.”
The woman’s story reinforced Quynh’s belief about the importance of regular health care checkups for the women, so that conditions like cervical cancer can be diagnosed and treated at an early stage. But some patients prefer to not receive treatment for their conditions because the medical care adds to the financial struggles some families face, she says.
“If she was to go to the hospital, she would not be able to create income or, she was selling things in the market, so therefore, her children would not be able to survive,” Quynh says.
Practicing humanitarian medical assistance in rural areas of a communist country is no easy feat, but since 1996, Quynh has successfully organized Project Vietnam’s service work there.
Eighty-five volunteers participated in the spring 2013 medical mission, which took place at the Cam Lam General Hospital in the Vietnamese province of Khanh Hoa. The number has grown through sheer word of mouth, Quynh says.
Tuan Nguyen, 24, is volunteering in the dental team. His mother, a former dental team leader for Project Vietnam, has been involved with the organization for over a decade, he says. Despite not having previous medical or dentistry education, he decided to volunteer after completing his undergraduate studies.
Nguyen aids well, almost like a dental assistant. He runs from the filling station to the three dentists, replenishing their stock of tools.
One of the dentists, Dr. Catherine Pham, 50, has been working on patients nonstop for hours. She works in a fast pace and doesn’t waste time, so she signals to the volunteers that she is done with a patient, rather than speaking. It’s chaotic, but a fun and rewarding experience, she says.
“I usually just try to get them in and out, do as much as possible within a short time,” Pham says, as she takes a break from the dental station. “[I] try to see as many people as possible, so I never really [count] at all.”
Throughout the Cam Lam General Hospital, there are licensed physicians, pharmacists, volunteers like Ngoc Le, who have future career goals in the medical field. Le, 27, from Portland, Ore. is on her third medical mission with Project Vietnam and says it is an enriching experience. The work the organization is able to accomplish in a communist country is amazing and fuels their interest in working in the medical field, she adds.
“It amazes me that they’ve been working in this country and having medical mission trips for the past 18 years and every single trip — every single year — there’s something that they’re up against,” Le says. “It’s really amazing that they they’re able to work through those obstacles to bring the help to the people in need. To me, that’s one of the greatest things about Project Vietnam’s commitment to their passion that enables them to move through these obstacles.”[ READ VANESSA'S BLOG FOR MORE ABOUT HER EXPERIENCE ]