The California Aggie’s Thuy Tran left for Vietnam at the end of last week to take part in an optometric mission in the country’s Ben Tre Province. She will begin her charity work on Tuesday.
A professor once told me to make a list of 20 things I wanted to accomplish in life. Among skydiving and spending a year in Paris, I also wanted to write for a local newspaper and perform charity work in a third-world country. Although I haven’t yet jumped out of a plane or taken a flight to Europe, I have become a writer and now will be on a charity mission to Vietnam.
For four days, I will be assisting optometrists in providing eye exams and eyeglasses for the poor and underprivileged people of Vietnam. I am traveling with 12 other doctors and volunteers to the Ben Tre Province located at the southern part of the country. The trip is sponsored by Project Health Inc. (PHI), a nonprofit organization based in Minnesota.
The organization regularly sponsors medical projects to provide free eye surgeries, eye examinations, dentistry and medicine, according to a PHI informational handout.
In addition to providing medical services, doctors from PHI also share their knowledge and skills with local doctors so they can treat needy patients outside of the U.S.
In the past, they have provided medical care for Guatemala, Central America and other areas of the world. In 2006, they collaborated with the International Lion’s Club to sponsor a medical health care project in the Binh Duong Province of Vietnam. During that mission, 80 cataract surgeries were performed in addition to eye exams, dentistry and other medical services for over 1,000 people.
“For this trip, we expect to have 60 cases of cataract surgery and will be seeing 1,500 to 2,000 patients for eye exams,” said Xuan-Mai Ta, optometrist and president of PHI.
During the mission, doctors and volunteers will be divided into two teams: optometry and ophthalmology. The ophthalmology team will remain at the Nguyen Dinh Chieu hospital in the main city of Ben Tre to provide eye surgeries. The optometry team, which I am a part of, will travel to one village each day for four days to provide eye exams. Once we arrive at the villages, we will be divided into four separate stations.
At the first station, we will be testing patients for visual acuity. After that, patients are tested by an autorefractor where an automated machine provides objective prescriptions. Following an internal exam, the patients will arrive at a dispensing station where they are given eyeglasses in accordance to their prescriptions.
Ta believes the trip will be successful in that we’ll be able to treat people who really need health care and cannot support themselves.
“We’ll probably have a successful time making friends and examining patients and do good work before we leave,” she said.
The difficult part of the trip, Ta said, is to live in less-than-perfect conditions. We’ll have to deal with the possibility of getting food allergies, malaria, being kidnapped or getting into a traffic accident.
“My greatest fear is the driving,” she said. “The driving in Vietnam is horrendous since there are no clear-cut policies. There are no traffic rules and since we’re not driving, we’ll be at the mercy of the drivers.“
For me, the biggest worry is possibly catching malaria. Ta said our mission will take place near a big lake by the Mekong Delta where it’s infested with mosquitoes. I hadn’t even thought about getting vaccinations at the travel clinic. Ta is prepared with anti-malaria pills, but all I can depend on is my two cans of insect repellant.
Besides my anxiety about catching diseases, I am absolutely ready for this trip as it’s been a goal that I can finally accomplish. I am excited to know that my efforts can help thousands of people and that I am taking a step into the career I plan to pursue for the rest of my life.
Additionally, I will have an opportunity to visit my extended family whom I have not seen for six years. While it may be the first time I get to see my cousins, it may be the last time I can see my grandmother. She’s 76, survived the Vietnam War and is the most generous woman I have ever known. She is a woman I admire and a woman I can never be.
As this is also the first trip I have ever taken on my own, I look forward to the independence and adventure and plan to make the most of it. Assuming that I don’t catch life-threatening diseases, you can expect a story after my return at the end of November.
The trip all started when I found Ta’s contact information through the Volunteer Optometric Services for Humanity website. To find out how you can take part in optometric missions throughout the world, visit vosh.org.
THUY TRAN can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.