Over the past twenty years of REI-Vietnam’s history, there have been some significant volunteers who have contributed greatly in the development of the REI’s medical work. From time to time in the coming months, we want to honor these individuals by telling their stories in the REI website News Section. This month it is our privilege to introduce you to a couple who was one of our early volunteers, Dr. Ace and Mrs. Jean Barnes. For eighteen years from its 1994 inception, Asa "Ace" Barnes, pathologist, was as a key leader in growing our medical program. In total, he made two dozen trips to Vietnam and was instrumental in launching new partnerships in both Hanoi and Hue. Additionally, starting in 1998, Ace acted as Co-Team Leader in launching REI's Family Practice program.
Jean, meanwhile, was a pioneer in her own right. In 1995 Jean became the first accompanying spouse on a professional team and immediately found herself immersed in activities varying from teaching English through songs, assisting husband Ace and developing warm relationships with the Vietnamese. After that first trip she became a regular participant on the medical teams. Later she and Ace would together host several foundational Vietnamese friends including our late sponsor Dr. Ton That Bach and his wife Dr. Nga, our Vietnamese representative Mrs. Lien and husband Dr. Long, and long-time MOET leader Mr. Dzung among others.
Ace came by his interest in medicine in an understandable way. He was born in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, and his father, also named Asa, was a doctor specializing in Public Health and Administration but also serving his country in the European theater of WWII. After the war Ace’s father took a job as Medical Director of the Pacific area of the Red Cross and moved the family to Burlingame, California.
While there, Ace started high school and discovered the fun of backpacking in the Sierra Nevada mountain range. His love of hiking has continued to the present. Most recently, Ace hiked for 10 years with REI-Vietnam’s director, Brian Teel and with Dr. Thu Hoang, now Chairman of the Business Department of Hanoi University when Dr. Thu was earning his doctorate in at Portland State.
In Ace’s junior year of high school, his family moved to Louisville, Kentucky, where he continued to play football and learned to love basketball. Undergraduate studies at the University of Kentucky began with a struggle but ended with a performance that earned him a place in Yale University’s Medical School in the class of 1959.
However, before starting medical school, Ace and a friend returned to the Sierras where he worked at Yosemite National Park bussing tables at the Camp Curry cafeteria. A pretty, young lady who was in charge of the Grizzly Club daycare for children ate at the cafeteria. Her name was Jean Bowen, and she liked to hike mountain trails with Ace on her days off. They fell in love, and have remained in love and married for 55 years.
Medical school in New England was a radical change from college in Kentucky. Ace was an “oddity” in the freshman class at Yale: friendly, unguarded and outgoing. He was elected class president the first week.
Between his second and third year of Medical School, Ace and Jean were married and their first child, Seth, was born during the fourth year. In those days, grade school teachers were not allowed to teach if they were pregnant so Jean was prematurely retired. To compensate for their drop in income, Ace joined a special Army program and served as a Second Lieutenant in the Army Reserve. After graduation he took a rotating internship at Western Reserve in Cleveland, Ohio.
Unsure of what medical specialty was most challenging, Ace volunteered for active duty. He was assigned as Preventive Medicine Officer for the Army in northern Italy. Ace and his family enjoyed three wonderful years in Verona.
Having completed his obligated military time, Ace chose to specialize in pathology. He first trained in surgical pathology at Yale, but re-entered active duty (he eventually rose to the rank of colonel) to work in laboratory pathology at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, DC.. While he studied at Walter Reed, he saw many patients who continued to require blood transfusions. At first, many of them had received a massive quantity of uncross-matched ‘group O’ blood. Doctors were uncertain which blood group should be used in subsequent transfusions: more ‘group O’ or the patient’s native blood type?
Ace helped develop a lab protocol which answered this question. This work resulted in his subsequent assignment to be Blood Program Officer, and he supervised distribution of blood and transfusions during his first trip to Vietnam. Ace’s interest in blood diseases and transfusion has continued to the present.
After leaving active duty, Ace joined the Pathology Department at the University of Missouri-Columbia Medical School. He worked there seven years and was promoted to Professor. But a more challenging opportunity in Long Beach, California resulted in another move across the country.
In 1993 Ace and Jean heard about an opportunity to serve in Russia. They enjoyed this experience so much and had thought about returning when they happened to hear REI-Vietnam’s first director, Doug Sparks, speak excitedly about Vietnam requesting assistance from foreigners.
Doug asked Ace to lead a team of doctors to evaluate medical needs in Vietnam. Ace, ENT Dr. Craig Hedges (currently working in Hanoi as this is being written), long-time REI Pediatrics head Dr. Bob Telander, and five other physicians visited hospitals in Hanoi and Hue. Their hospital tours were facilitated by the late Dr. Ton That Bach, then Director of the Hanoi Medical School, and now recognized as a national hero in Vietnam. Dr. Bach became Ace and Doug Spark’s friend, and their friendship opened many doors to the REI-VN medical outreach.
On that first trip in 1994, Ace was struck by the enormous need for equipment, drugs and medical facilities. REI-VN arranged and supervised the delivery of $2.5 million of medicine and medical equipment to be distributed to Vietnamese hospitals. The US transport aircraft carrying these supplies landed in Hanoi, was unloaded into 10 large trucks, and the aircraft was able to make the required departure by sunset.
Ace and Jean were foundational in many ways to our Vietnam work. Ace launched our pathology work, recruited colleagues in orthopedics, pediatrics, and family practice among other specializations. Jean set the standard for complimentary service by non-professional spouses, engaging in English training when requested but also bringing her wonderful smile and laughter.
Ace and Jean can recall many highlights from their 18 years of service in Vietnam but the common theme that runs through those memories is friendship. The Barnes greatly enjoyed the opportunities they had to connect his Vietnamese friends with people and organizations that would build into them professionally, provide them with equipment, and provide them with training not otherwise available to them.
A caring spirit, generosity, and personal humility are attributes that characterized Ace and Jean throughout their years in Vietnam. Their work not only launched much of our medical programs but also nurtured a warm, friendly, and professionally competent standard of service that benefits REI’s work in Vietnam to this day.