For the last seven years, Thuyle Hope Dinh has spent her vacations volunteering as a translator for Interplast.
Originally from Vietnam, Thuyle and her siblings were as she calls it, “boat people.” Her father was imprisoned in a concentration camp and her mother needed to stay behind; therefore, like thousands of other children in the late 1970s, Thuyle, at age 13, fled by boat with some of her siblings but with no adults to help them. For days, the unaccompanied children drifted lost at sea and did not have any food or water, but fortunately another boat came along, saved them and helped them to Malaysia where she and her siblings lived for six months until coming to the United States, joining an older brother.
Today, Thuyle is a nurse with Valley Medical Center in San Jose and has two children of her own. After eight years in the concentration camp, her father was released and her parents now live in Sacramento. It is amazing the hardships this beautiful woman has overcome and how she continues to give.
Here Thuyle explains to Bao-Ngoc’s mother how to give her child iron supplements so that she may be healthier next year.
Unfortunately, not all of the children Interplast’s sees in clinic are health enough for surgery. Two-year old Bao-Tgoc has a cleft palate, but she also is anemic and cannot undergo surgery this year. As Interplast has found that anemia is a barrier to surgery for many children, it now supplies families with iron supplements, with the hope that their children will be healthier for surgery another year.
All of the Interplast anesthesiologists hail from New England. Two are from Dartmouth, New Hampshire and one is from South Hero, Vermont. Dr. Joe Kreutz, from Vermont, is an Interplast veteran and has been on seven trips thus far. It is amazing how Interplast volunteers devote their vacation time to Interplast year after year. Joe helped out with clinic, examining patients making sure they were healthy enough to undergo anesthesia and surgery. This little one was very curious, reaching for Joe’s stethescope and glasses.
Many of the Interplast volunteers said that this was the best clinic they had ever experienced. Much credit needs to be given to Dr. Hien Thi Nguyen, Interplast’s key partner in Vietnam. An anesthesiologist in Ho Chi Minh City, Hien is critical to the work Interplast does in all of Vietnam. At more than six sites in Vietnam, she nurtures and builds relationships for Interplast to provide surgical team trips and visiting educator workshops. Not only that, she runs a mean clinic, keeping what could be a chaotic situation completely under control.
Interplast could not do the work it does without its local hosts. They open the doors to their hospitals and send word village by village, neighborhood by neighborhood, so that children who suffer from a congenital deformity or disabling injury can have a second chance at life. Dr. Diep, the director of the Dong Thap General Hospital, welcomed Dr. Carter Dodge, team leader and volunteer anesthesiologist, and other members of the teams. He noted that he wanted Interplast to do more than just help the children. He wanted his surgeons and nurses to learn from the Interplast team. It is Interplast’s mission to not only provide life-changing surgeries but to partner with local doctors like Dr. Diep so that the surgeries can happen year-round and for generations to come.
One such devoted volunteer is Dr. Carla Epps, from the Washington, DC area. Early on clinic day, she examined our tiniest patient, Van Hieu. He is 2 months old from Phong My. Because of the timing of this Interplast trip, Van Hieu will have his cleft lip fixed at about the same age as most children born in countries with more access to reconstructive surgery and/or with more economic means.
Amongst the sleeplessness and long cramped flights, it is easy to question why one would come some 6,000+ miles to travel another four hours on dusty, bumpy roads to then sleep with geckos at a foreign hotel. Tired, jet-lagged, surrounded by 80 percent humidity with the only relief being lukewarm showers coming out of a small spout in the wall, even I found myself wondering why am I doing this underneath my professional smile.
But then you wake up the next day slightly refreshed and head to the hospital. Seeing thatch dwellings with tarps for roofs and child street vendors nestled among the modern buildings on an “adventuresome” van ride in a sea of motor bikes, the mission starts to come back to you in eureka fashion.
By the time we reach the Dong Thap General Hospital in Cao Lanh, the 13 members and I are completely clear and excited about the work we have been given to do. And it is a gift. More than 150 families have come to give Interplast medical professionals their most beloved treasures, their children, for a couple of days. So desperate is their need for help that they are willing to completely trust these medical strangers in a hospital that is even foreign to the locals. And it is with humbling knowledge, this gift, that these volunteer doctors and nurses work tirelessly examining small patients.
Hello! My name is Sara Anderson-Hsiao, communications and public education director at Interplast. I will be accompanying the surgical team in Cao Lanh, Vietnam for the first week that they are here, so stay tuned for (hopefully) daily updates.