On March 8, 2018, I embarked on a week-long journey with the Project Vietnam Foundation (PVNF) to help provide medical care for the impoverished people of Central Vietnam. This journey not only deepened my understanding for my cultural heritage, but it also strengthened my admiration of the resilience of the Vietnamese people.
PVNF is a nonprofit humanitarian organization that has worked tirelessly for over two decades to create sustainable healthcare in rural areas of Vietnam. I was introduced to PVNF when Dr. Quynh Kieu, the organization’s founder, who also happens to be my pediatrician, invited me to perform the Chinese zither at her annual PVNF fundraiser. Impassioned stories of how her foundation changed the lives of so many in need intrigued me . I gradually became more involved in PVNF over the next few years, starting with administrative work until I received the life-changing opportunity to actually go on the 2018 spring medical mission.
After 24 hours of hopping airlines and restlessly waiting around foreign airports, I arrived in the city of Hue, where I met over 60 other volunteers. I was amazed and humbled to see how so many strangers from all over the world united with the sole purpose of selflessly donating their time and talents to those less fortunate.
I was a part of the vitals team during this mission, which promptly threw me into the fast-paced environment of the medical field. Here, I had the rare chance to hear the touching and heart-wrenching stories of the hardships of these native people. One of these poignant stories belonged to a woman who arrived complaining of back pains. She was forced to work laborious hours farming in order to provide for her disabled husband and her four children—all of whom suffered from severe Down Syndrome. One returning volunteer relayed a story about a little girl who received a small lollipop as a treat after her medical evaluation. Instead of eating the candy, she found a small rock and broke the lollipop into tiny pieces. She later explained that she planned to share it with her siblings because she did not want to take more than her fair share of sweets. Stories such as these opened my eyes to see how unwavering and resilient these people are at all ages and under any circumstance. Story after story led me to the realization that I had been immensely sheltered all my life.
Although I was aware and conscious of the poverty and injustices that exist around the world, it was as though I saw it through rose colored glasses. Since I never personally witnessed it on such a large scale, it never truly impacted me or pushed me to step forward and make a difference. I found a purpose and the desire to create a movement for change. I was not the only one who felt the need to put in the most effort possible in the limited time we had here.
In the span of just four days, PVNF volunteers were able to provide primary care for over 2,800 adults and children, including multiple medical emergencies. One young man received emergency tooth extraction that had been left untreated for years and a small boy received minor foot surgery, as it had become severely infected from an embedded thorn. I even witnessed a young man go through an epileptic seizure while volunteer doctors scrambled to find a hospital that would be able to treat him. We did the best we could under a multitude of constraints, especially under the awareness of the political environment we were working in. We had to concentrate on why we were there. The overall objective of the mission was to provide basic vital medical care to those who desperately needed it but couldn’t afford it.
At the end of a hard week, we were awarded with excursions to historical sites around the region. One such location was the Vietnamese Demilitarized Zone: a famous battleground that divided the former North and South Vietnam. Seeing it in person was extremely humbling and brought back memories of the stories that I have heard about the Vietnam War. We also visited the Shrine of Our Lady of LaVang, where the Virgin Mary had appeared before Catholic refugees trying to escape persecution in 1798. Since the majority of Vietnam practices Buddhism, I never thought that I would have an opportunity to strengthen my Catholic faith on this trip. However, I actually experienced a newfound connection to my faith as I prayed together with worshippers under the legendary tree where Mother Mary appeared over 200 years ago. This medical mission taught me more than I could have ever imagined.
Witnessing the problems that exist and having a small hand in alleviating even one person’s plight has empowered me and motivated me to make a positive impact in our world. Before I set out on this mission, I assumed that that I would be the one helping others, but upon returning home, I realized that I was the one who benefitted the most.