The California Aggie’s Thuy Tran went to Vietnam in November to participate in a charity mission in the country’s Ben Tre Province. She shares her experiences in the country and in helping the team provide 77 cases of surgeries, 1,800 examinations and 2,500 eyeglasses.
I spent my first few days in Saigon living the life of a Vietnamese girl. I traveled everywhere by motorbike, ate at street vendors and slept with my little cousins every night under mosquito nets. I bargained at markets, prayed at temples and visited an orphanage. I met children who had no family and those who were deformed due to the effects of Agent Orange.
Although I’d traveled to many countries before, what I saw were only through the eyes of a tourist. During this trip, I wanted to see a country’s people and lifestyle. I wanted to make a difference in their lives beyond anything I could do in Davis. So for three weeks in November, I traveled to Vietnam to help provide vision care for over 1,800 people.
The mission was sponsored by Project Health Inc., a non-profit organization in Minnesota. PHI sponsors medical projects to provide free health services to people around the world, according to a PHI handout.
As PHI’s mission to Vietnam in 2006 was successful in helping over 1,000 people, optometrist and PHI founder Xuan-Mai Ta organized another trip in November in hopes of helping 1,500 people.
After corresponding with her via e-mail and phone, I decided to participate in the mission. On Nov. 5, I flew to Vietnam and was greeted at the airport by my uncles and grandma, whom I hadn’t seen for six years. Instead of sightseeing, I spent time in Saigon with my grandma – sights will be there forever, but she won’t. Even as a writer, she means more to me than any words could say.
I also went to the airport each day to pick up doctors and volunteers. We had 18 people total: three ophthalmologists, five optometrists and 10 volunteers.
On Nov. 11, we took off for the Ben Tre Province of Vietnam, where we worked until Nov. 16. Although I was initially afraid of catching malaria, it was not an issue as I took anti-malarial pills and drenched myself in insect repellent.
When we arrived, we split up into two teams: the ophthalmology team and optometry team. The ophthalmology team stayed at the Nguyen Dinh Chieu Hospital at the main city of Ben Tre to perform surgeries. The optometry team visited one village each day for four days to perform eye examinations and dispense eye-care needs such as glasses and medication. We were split into four stations.
I worked at the visual acuity station to test how well patients saw through each eye using an eye chart. At the auto-refraction station, a machine was used to determine patients‘ prescriptions for their eyeglasses. The prescriptions were close, but not exact. At the internal exam station, the optometrists examined the health of the patients‘ eyes. At the last station, volunteers dispensed glasses to patients.
Most patients were far-sighted because we visited farming villages where most people work in the fields and had minimal education, said Susan Roh, optometrist and mission volunteer in an e-mail.
“They didn’t have a lot of near vision demand from school work and reading which can induce near-sightedness,” she said.
We brought 2,500 pairs of eyeglasses that were donated by the Lions Club of Fargo, North Dakota. The glasses were measured and sorted by their prescriptions.
On our first day, there was an undying crowd waiting outside. Although conditions were poor at the villages – no air conditioner or clean toilets – our volunteers didn’t complain.
The people of Ben Tre really needed our help, Roh said.
“We worked in villages where the poverty level was palpable,” she said. “These people were wearing clothing that were threadbare and often with holes or holes that had been mended.“
Patients were seen in an orderly fashion until after lunch when our other translators went home. I was the only translator left as our Vietnamese-speaking doctor had gone off for equipment. That’s when things became hectic.
I simultaneously ran my station, floated between the other stations to translate while trying to keep people from stealing glasses. We worked for 10 hours until 6 p.m. There was still a huge crowd but we had to close the doors. I was running on pure adrenaline and didn’t feel tired, but crashed as soon as we got back to the hotel. That day, we saw 600 patients.
Out of that group, about 70 percent had pathologies including complications of inadequate cataract surgery and advanced untreated cataracts, Ta said in an e-mail.
A cataract is an abnormality of the eye, characterized by opacity of the lens.
We also saw many patients with premature cataracts and pterygium, which are both caused by too much exposure to ultraviolet rays from the sun, Roh said.
“This makes sense in farming villages because people work outside and they do not have proper eye protection like sunglasses to wear,” she said.
The following days followed a similar pattern. We had breakfast at 6 a.m. and saw 20 to 30 patients before heading off for the villages.
The trips to the villages took between one and two hours. On the second day, we received more help but since there were hundreds of people waiting, none of our volunteers wanted to stop working. We worked through lunch and only ate desserts brought to us by locals. We saw 500 patients that day.
Every day ran a little smoother, but felt more exhausting. I was also getting frustrated as I saw many people being pushed and shoved over. It was heartbreaking to see old women and children waiting in the rain for us even when they didn’t have a chance to be examined.
One woman brought her 10-year-old granddaughter and begged to let her in. Generally, only people with stamped slips were allowed inside but I let her through anyway. We discovered that she was so near-sighted that she could only see about two inches in front of her face. Her prescription was so high that we had to test her twice to make sure it was accurate. After giving her glasses, she could see almost 20/20.
I wasn’t as much tired physically as I was mentally from learning of some of the corruption that took place. The Nguyen Dinh Chieu Hospital officials were charging us money for our charity work, which was eventually paid by a local businessman who helped sponsor our trip. Hospital guards took several glasses and airport officials seized our equipment in hopes for a bribe.
Although those were aspects of the trip I wish I could change, it was nonetheless an experience I am very grateful to have. I realize in a country so poor and torn, corruption is inevitable. Despite the challenges, it was still a successful mission.
In total, we performed 77 cases of surgeries and examined 1,800 patients.
The mission was successful not only for the number of patients we helped but also for meeting their needs as they do not get adequate overall health care, Roh said.
The volunteers‘ generosity also helped to make the project a success, Ta said.
“It was an honor to be among the great volunteers we had,” she said. “They were compassionate, hardworking and stoic under difficult circumstances. They did not mind long hours or a shortage of comforts.“
We plan to return to Vietnam for the next project in 2010.
Before the trip, I thought this mission would help me accomplish one my dreams – to provide eye care for people in need. I know now that this dream may never be accomplished because the need for eye and health care will exist so long as poverty is still in existence. But I also realized that if even one person’s condition of life is made better with my help, then at least I will have the feeling of being accomplished. And this is a feeling I will continue to chase for the rest of my life.
At the end of this mission, I did what I sought to do – see the way Vietnamese people lived. And for many, it was the first time that they could see the way they lived.
If interested in participating in similar missions, visit vosh.org.
THUY TRAN can be reached at email@example.com.