Experiencing Vietnam with IEP

"She was truly a testament to the notion that strength does not always equate with power, but also can come in a form that seeks to persevere and endure the many pains and sorrows of life." 
Post by Wing Ip, DPM
Wing Ip, in the operating room.
performing a TAL procedure.
When we first arrived at Can Tho General Hospital, it really hit me why I was there. I couldn’t believe there were so many patients waiting outside in the heat to be seen. I can’t imagine this scenario back in the States. However, the patients and their families waited patiently.

It felt like the operating room was a home away from home. Aside from wearing hospital-issue flip-flops, I felt that I was in my element. It’s can be intimidating to work in an unfamiliar environment, but the way our team worked together with the Vietnamese team definitely helped. Soon I felt as though I was working in an operating room back home.

It was gratifying to see that we were able to help our patients, but I was saddened that we could not provide them with the same amount of comfort and assistance that patients in the States receive after surgery. However, it’s heartening that most of the patients have a wide range of social support.

Compared to what we’re used to in U.S. hospitals, the hospital in Can Tho is definitely less accommodating with what we would consider basics: sheets, pillows, toiletries, food, curtains for patient privacy, air conditioning. However, the hospital is remarkably tolerant of things you would not see in a U.S. hospital. For instance, I remember seeing a family member bring in a rice cooker to the hospital to cook food for her loved one. Numerous people slept in the hallways waiting for days to be treated or in support of a family member. In the United States, such things would likely be “fire hazards” and thus would be a pretense to bring out the red tape.  

Jenni Lehnert, G, Sahra Sellers, Wing Ip, and
Diane Koshimune with one of IEP's patients.
It was very endearing to see how entire families would come to provide support for patients. It’s good to know that in this day and age, there are still places in the world that still have their traditional way of life despite heading on what seems to be a one-way ticket toward industrialization. Places like Vietnam remind me of how much we have a lost in pursuit of our highly individual desires. 

For me, the most memorable case was a young woman who was undergoing a rather complex surgical procedure and was given anesthesia using a spinal epidural that lasted only three hours. This is a stark contrast to what we would experience in the States. She was fully awake and conscious as the epidural began to lose its effectiveness. I was amazed at her emotional and mental endurance throughout this long and painful ordeal -- the only sign of pain that she exhibited were small welts of tears that would periodically flow down her cheeks. She was truly a testament to the notion that strength does not always equate with power, but also can come in a form that seeks to persevere and endure the many pains and sorrows of life. 

Evaluating the success of our procedures was rather difficult as we were only there for two weeks. However, if success could be judged solely based on the smiles on our patients’ faces, then I can definitely say that our mission was a great success. Our patients were truly grateful and it was an honor to be able to correct their ailments, which will hopefully lead improving their quality of life. In the future, it would be nice if we could work more closely with the hospital and get updates on the progress of our patients. 

Before our trip, what I knew about Vietnam came from travel guides and videos at the local library. For the most part, the information was accurate with regard to the urban sprawl, pollution, and issues with infrastructure. But what Vietnam “lacks”-- according to our standards -- doesn’t affect the vitality and strength of the people. I found the people of Vietnam to be extremely hospitable and generous.

The travel guides portray the Vietnamese people as so impoverished that they will find any opportunity to steal your shoes from under your feet. However, I experienced nothing like that. Unlike impoverished people in many other places, people in Vietnam are remarkably resilient and have learned to do without. To suggest that poverty is always correlated with crime and moral apathy is to deny the remarkable spirit of the Vietnamese people, who maintain dignity and humanity in the face of tremendous adversity. Although I was told about the heat and humidity before we left, I expected something relatively cooler as we are in the “winter” season and Vietnam is north of the equator. If this is winter in Vietnam I can only imagine what the summer months are like. I think my sweat glands were quite confused to be working overtime with summer still months away. 

Wing braving Can Tho on two wheels with Fletch,
IEP's amazing and amusing documentarian.
Beyond the hospital, my most memorable experiences were on two wheels. During my first scooter ride with Fletcher, we got lost, and of course I panicked. In retrospect, if you’re going to get lost on a scooter in Vietnam, Fletcher is the right choice -- he’s like a human GPS. The second time, I rode with Titi to a wedding -- side-saddle while wearing a dress and three-inch heels! It was a rainy day, and I brought an umbrella to help protect our make-up from the rain, but Titi told me that it’s illegal to use umbrellas while on the scooter! Talk about being inexperienced!

I would love to go back again, not only to be immersed in such a vibrant culture but to see that our patients are doing well. I often think about our patients in Vietnam, and it would provide me with peace of mind to be able to see their progress and recovery.