Saturday, February 1, 2003

2003 Epilogue: Ponce Gonzalez

This will be my last journal entry for the trip. I thought that I'd pull together some thoughts and fill in some holes here and there. First, I'm glad that I had a chance to experience the trip. I know that other vets have made the trip to come home again. Now I know why.

I'm glad that I was able to witness the good that the doctors of Mission Peace have done.

I am glad that I could sit down with a doctor and former VC and speak of our shared goal to help heal. I was glad to  hear him say, "I like Americans!" and genuinely mean it. He spoke of the war and the times that he had to take cover under his desk during the bombings and that he survived to complete medical school. He gave me a bear hug and laughed when I told him that I was never a good shot anyway. (Only something a vet would probably understand.)

I met a lot of neat people during my stay. Many people were curious enough to touch me and inquire where I was from. Now there's something that wouldn't happen in the States. The students at the high schools we visited were interested in what we did for a living, why we had come to Vietnam, and about our families. Questions we ask others when we meet them for the first time.

The staff at the hospital was happy to see the medical instruments, medicine, etc. that the doctors brought with them. They asked us if we could leave some of the instruments behind for their use, which we did.
I think that this is the fourth year that the doctors have made the trip to Vietnam. You can see the progress that has been made during that time. Not only have the doctors provided excellent care, they've also provided training and books to help the Vietnamese doctors.

The hotel staff for both the Can Tho and Saigon units took care of making us feel welcome. As I was boarding the bus to leave Can Tho, the head receptionist told me that the staff wanted me to know that they liked me very much and that I was very funny. (I think that this was a veiled reference to cyclo disaster I described one of my earlier journals.)  Two of the students from the high school for "gifted" students also came by to say goodbye. It's interesting that we'd only known them for such a short time, but I felt that I was leaving a bit of family behind.

In retrospect, I'm not really sure of all that I've learned.
  • I know that it reinforced my conviction that people are basically friendly and that they have the same day-to-day struggles that we have and they want the best for their kids too.
  • I've learned more about the doctors, nurses, and their commitment to help others.
  • I've learned that people can come together from other parts of the U.S. to focus their energy to teach hands-on and through lectures the latest techniques in physical therapy.
  • I've learned that one man's idea to help others that started out as conversation over beers can turn into reality.
 Which brings me to the conversation we had as we winged our way to Vietnam: He wondered if he could convert a  Boeing 747 into many operating rooms with even more doctors. . .   Hold on!

2003 Epilogue: Bruce Lehnert

Mission Peace 2003 was our smoothest and most successful mission to date. Vietnam is, at best, a difficult country with which to establish clear and efficient communication. The Mission Peace team has finally crossed that bridge with our Vietnamese counterparts. In fact, we did not have a translator the first three days, yet we managed to see more than 50 patients and operate on 8. I feel like our Vietnamese team members have become our brothers.

One of the highlights of the mission was seeing and examining patients who underwent operations in 2000 and 2002.  There is a certain anxiety about leaving people for whom we have performed major operations for one year. That anxiety builds until we see them the following year. Being less than an optimist I always assume the worst.

Every year, including this one,I have been more than pleased with the technical outcome of the procedures.Our complication rate has been amazingly low, and more important, the satisfaction of our patients has been high. Seeing people whose lives have changed because of our help is at the heart of practicing medicine. Some of our patients lived on the fringe of society because of their deformities. To see them walk without crutches and assume a new level of confidence and function is truly amazing. It is what keeps me coming back again and again.

As our skill level of treating the Mekong people develops, we have a better understanding of our patient’s cultural and physical needs. It has been professionally fulfilling to see our team grow in its breadth of skills and abilities. Our technical capacity has also grown due to the generous donations of power equipment and fixation devices. Because the MP team acquired more instrumentation we were able to run two operating rooms at the same time.

Another highlight of the mission was the addition of my fellowship mentor Dr. Meir Nyska. I have always looked to him as a source of inspiration and knowledge and regard him as my foot-and-ankle surgery mentor. It was special to have him see, first hand, how I have turned out and to work side by side with him again.

My wife joined us for a second tour of duty this year. Jenni has carved out a niche as our team's surgical nurse. She efficiently runs the operating room and irons out all the wrinkles that inevitably develop in any operating theater setting. I am proud that the team finds her invaluable.

In addition to Dr. Nyska and my wife, I had the benefit of another family member joining us this year--my Dad. Poppa, as he likes to be called, was a wonderful addition to our team. He was our backup man and in charge of taking surgical and clinical photographs, troubleshooting our equipment failures, and helping with the humanitarian portion of the mission. He was the one team member who was universally loved by all.

I am already thinking about MP2004. The more I go,  the more I want to go again.