REI’s first contact with Dr. Lam Huyen Tran (third from right, above) took place In the 1990’s, when Dr. David Parsons and his team met Dr. Tran at Cho Ray Hospital in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), where she was a young resident surgeon in the ENT (Ear, Nose and Throat) department, one of many young surgeons REI seeks to help and train.
Fast forward to November 2012, when David led an ENT team to Nguyen Tri Phuong (NTP) Hospital, an older government hospital with 800 beds in HCMC. There Dr. David reconnected with Dr. Tran, who had been transferred to NTP to strengthen the ENT department, and had subsequently become the department head. One of David’s team members was Dr. Bill Gibson. “I was impressed by her exceptionally high level of skill,” Bill said of Dr. Tran later. “She was holding the optical equipment in one hand while performing the actual surgery with the other.” He was also impressed with the inadequacy of her tools. How much more, he wondered, could she do with proper equipment? Upon his return to the USA, Bill set to work on contacting various foundations, medical supply companies, and personal friends, in order to purchase the equipment needed by Dr. Tran and her department.
Four months later, in February 2013, Dr. Brent Senior led an ENT team to NTP. One of his team members was Dr. Bruce Leipzig, who quickly came to the same conclusions as Bill: Dr. Tran was an exceptional surgeon, working with very little. “Dr. Tran met me at the airport when I arrived,“ Bruce later said, “and for the next week we worked together at NTP. The hospital had virtually no good equipment. Even what they had was rusty and broken. But I saw medicine as it should be practiced. Dr. Tran and her colleagues gave themselves fully to their patients—intentional, devoted, sacrificial. It was truly inspirational. I had thought that my skills and training had always been a blessing for my community, but I came away from that trip realizing that I knew nothing about giving and caring. It changed my life.”
Bruce saw the need for equipment, but also for help in certain procedures. He spent many hours training the hospital personnel on, among other things, sterile technique. Today the rate of infection in the ICU has dropped from 50% to 5%.
Upon his return to the United States, Dr. Bruce also pursued grants, solicited his friends, and gave out of his own pocket to purchase equipment for the hospital, including instruments for testing the hearing of newborns. (If hearing issues are detected early, much can be done to help, but if diagnosis is delayed by even a few years, often the child is doomed to a life of silent isolation and social alienation.) Last summer Bruce made a special trip to Vietnam to deliver two pieces of diagnostic audio logic equipment for newborns and limited screening of adults (pictured in the top photo), and today some 6,000 newborns are screened every year through their use. He plans to bring the last piece in February 2016, as well as an assortment of new instruments for clinic exams and ontological surgical instruments for the operating room.
Other doctors have been involved in supplying equipment as well. Dr. David Parsons brought a few pieces of equipment when he came to NTP in November 2012. But during that visit, he made a proposal that went beyond that.
“Dr. Tran,” David said, “have you ever been to the United States?” “Oh, it is my dream!” she replied. The next day David told her that he had talked with the REI office, and the way was clear for her to go to the US on a J1 (cultural and educational exchange) visa. That night Dr. Tran was so excited that she couldn’t sleep.
In April 2013 Dr. Tran landed in the United States for the first time. She was initially met and hosted by Dr. Craig (pictured above with Dr. Tran) and Rebecca Hedges, and then over a period of three months made a tour of several of the hospitals, universities and clinics where REI volunteers work, meeting with Dr. Gibson, Dr. Parsons, Dr. Senior, Dr. Leipzig, Dr. Dayton Young, Dr. Harold Pine, Dr. Rick Kopke, Dr. Kent Dyer, Dr. Perry Santos, and others—all eager to share their lives and skills with Dr. Tran. “I learned about sinus surgery… I saw many of his difficult surgeries… I attended his dissection course… I learned about head and neck surgery, ear surgery… they taught me how to dissect a temporal bone…”
And lives were shared personally as well as professionally. Dr. Tran later said, “They brought me to the beach, to see the castle... That was why I never feel missed my home. I thought I was a princess in his house.” And, “Their family is so nice, they made me smile all the time and enjoy delicious meals… (her host’s mother) is so nice, she made me feel I was in my house with my mother, I never forget her spaghetti she cooked for me. It was so good! Every one of these families welcomed me as part of their family. I felt at home and sensed their love.
“During my trip, I learned a lot not only in medicine but also in life.”
The efforts of Bill and Bruce came to fruition during this 3-month visit. Through the generosity of many, including the extraordinary generosity of Bill’s friends Mr. and Mrs. Apfelbaum, several crucial pieces of pediatric airway equipment were purchased for NTP, including pediatric bronchoscopes, laryngoscopes, and a flexible optical nasopharyngoscope—tools desperately needed by the ENT department.
Dr. Tran took this equipment back to NTP with her, and it was quickly put to good use. Dr. Tran said, “In the past we never had this equipment, and had to send patients to another hospital. Now we can treat them ourselves, and our staff is so happy!”
Children are hearing. Children are breathing. Children are alive and running and playing with the rest of their buddies, because of the generosity, vision, skill, and most of all, heart of love for the people and children of Vietnam, shared by people on both sides of the ocean. And lives are being changed on both sides of the ocean as well. The giving, and the receiving, is taking place among all involved. This is what we long to see. This is the exchange part of REI. And this season, this is one—just one—of our stories of giving.
Merry Christmas and Happy Hanukkah!