How I Spent My Winter Vacation -- Volunteering in Vietnam

Smiling faces at the ceramic temple, Mekong Delta
Michelle is one of the high-school students who traveled with us and participated in the work at the hospital. She answered all of my post-trip questions with great details! ~K

I decided to go on this trip with the International Extremity Project for the chance to volunteer but also to experience an operating room setting. I really enjoy helping people and I figured that this trip would be a great way to help people that really needed it. Along the way, I could use the experience as a little "diagnostic test" for my ability to be a doctor. (The operating room may not be where I'm destined to work :) )

I expected that going to Vietnam would be a lot scarier than it was. When I thought of Vietnam, the communist country from my textbooks came to mind, but when I got there, everyone was much nicer and more hospitable than I expected.

When we first arrived at Can Tho General Hospital, I was surprised to see how many people were there, and how accommodating the nursing staff was. It was interesting to see how nearly everything was outside -- waiting areas, pharmacy, open hallways -- considering how much rain the area gets during the stormy season.

There were a lot of patients already waiting for us when we arrived. I found the intake and screening processes somewhat surprising, because I thought that nearly everyone would get surgery. Being part of the intake allowed me to see every patient, which gave me a real sense of the kinds of deformities.

After intake, I followed Bruce Lehnert during screening and he explained his thought process to me. It was great to learn not only about the types of deformities, but the causes them and what could be done to fix them. By the end of the day, I had a good idea of who would be scheduled for surgery and who the doctors wouldn't be able to help.

In the operating room.
I was excited and anxious about the first day of surgery, not really knowing what to expect. I was surprised at how dirty the hospital seemed inside. The climate is so humid that everything is damp. You could see mold and mildew growing in the corners of the hallways.

Seeing the prep for surgery was quite the experience, and I waited outside for a lot of it by orders of my queasy stomach. After the initial incision, I felt better and was able to get close enough to get some pretty amazing images. I could see the scared but happy looks on the patients' faces as they went in for their surgery, and it was very satisfying to see their looks of relief when they were done.

Seeing patients in recovery was one of my favorite parts. Jennifer Lehnert and I handed out medications and candy to post-surgery patients, and they were all so happy to see us. The parents of the little kids could not stop thanking us, and the looks on the kids' faces when we gave them their daily dose of M&M's were priceless. I enjoyed seeing the effects that IEP's work has on the lives of not only the children but the whole family, because without these surgeries, their lives would have been much more difficult than they already are.

One of our patients, post-surgery.
The most unexpected part of the experience was probably how open the hospital was and how lenient the rules were. I was pleasantly surprised that I was allowed in the operating room, but I was also surprised at how different the level of cleanliness is compared to hospitals here -- with black mold growing and patient families sitting outside on mats. I thought that a government-run hospital would be somewhat cleaner and more sanitized than the rest of the area. Unfortunately, that was not the case.

I connected with a lot of the patients. My favorites were a little boy in an orange shirt, a young man who had polio, a seven-year-old boy that I met in the OR.

I met the boy in the orange shirt during screening. His attitude was so happy and jovial that you couldn't help but giggle looking at him. He walked on his tip toes a little and his feet were slightly turned in, but he walked and ran without a care in the world. After we identified him as a surgery candidate, his mom asked us how much the surgery would cost. It was a great feeling to be able to tell her that everything would be free. The look of relief that came onto her face spoke for itself. (Unfortunately, after the screening, we were told we could not perform surgery on patients under six years old.)

The young man post-polio was about 19 and had one of the best attitudes I saw the entire trip. He was so lively and had a smile on his face wherever he went. He relies on crutches and I'm pretty sure that he can move as fast, if not faster, as I can without breaking into a jog. When we were looking for the OR on the first day, the nurses took us to the recovery area and we saw him in the hallways. He immediately recognized us, came over, and said "Hello! How are you?" We replied, "Good, how are you?" and were met with a blank stare and another "Hello!" It was funny to see how people know the greetings so well, but not the responses. When we asked him where the doctors were, his face lit up and he motioned for us to follow him. My dad and I thought, "Great! Now we can meet up with everyone before lunch!" When we turned the corner we realized that he had taken us to his room. My dad and I had a little laugh, said hi and goodbye to the other patients in the room, and returned to our hunt for the OR.

The last patient that I connected with was a little boy who was the last patient the first day of surgery. The hospital nurses has brought him up to the operating area about an hour early, so he was in the hallway on a small metal rolling bed with only a smock to cover himself and no supervision. When I found him, our nurses Jenni and Susie, were with G (one of our translators), trying to comfort him. I let Susie and Jenni go back into the operating rooms, while G and stayed and tried to keep his mind off of the surgery. You could see him trying so hard not to cry or look like he was showing emotion. Some of the Vietnamese male nurses would walk by, see a tear forming, and quickly wipe it away while telling him something that I couldn't understand. I felt like they were saying "Don't cry, you are lucky you are getting this surgery, so you have nothing to be sad about."

We were right next to the operating room and the surgery going on was pretty intense. As the nurses walked in and out, they often left the doors open, and the sounds of drills and other instruments were easily heard. I closed the door so that he didn't get more worried. G told him to try and take a nap, and he eventually fell asleep. I sat with him for a good 30 to 45 minutes in case he woke up. His surgery took 20 minutes, and I felt bad that he had been so worked up. When Jenni and I went to see him the next day, he was in a room with three other little boys who had already had surgery or were waiting their turn. It seemed like a very comfortable room for him to be in. He wasn't having much pain and was excited to see the candy we brought. His mom was so happy and thankful, and I was glad that everything turned out well.

The most memorable part of working at the hospital was seeing the smiling faces of the people every day. In surgery, they weren't as happy-go-lucky, but afterward it was very rewarding to see that everyone was happy to be there and that we had done a worthwhile job that would change lives.

Outside of hospital work, the most amazing part of the trip comes down to two things, the first being the overall experience I had. This was my first international trip, and it is one that I will never forget. It gave me a chance to see a third-world country, and while it isn't the luxury of Paris or London, the places we visited on New Year's Day were amazing.

Being in such a different place from home with a great group of people that I can now call friends was very reassuring for me while I was there. I am so glad that I got to meet all of these amazing people on the IEP team. I now have a group of friends with whom I've shared a life-changing experience, and that I will continue to keep in touch with and maybe even work with in the future. Who knows?!

I would definitely go back! I want to go back because of the amazing experiences I had the first time, and because I feel obligated to see all of the people that we helped if they choose to come again. Seeing the reactions that the group had when seeing returning patients (Diane :D ) seemed so satisfying. I would love to come back and see the patients again, especially since I didn't get to see most of them throughout their recovery process.

~Michelle A