Archive for the ‘Dentists and Buddhist Nuns’ Category

So much time has passed since my last blog entry because I’ve been jam-packed busy. I finished five weeks of volunteering in Central Vietnam, and finally have a moment to write. Well, the truth is after my volunteer work I’ve been mostly lounging by the beach since I really needed the down time. A friend recently said, “Live first, write later” so I’ve been living it up!

I divided my volunteer time between three cities in Vietnam: Tam Ky, Danang and Tuy Hoa. Tam Ky was just good old-fashioned, heart-warming fun. My days were mostly spent at two orphanages changing diapers and loving babies, teaching English to 5- and 6-year olds and playing games with older children. There was an outbreak of chicken pox at one of the orphanages and it’s impossible to quarantine children with such limited staffing resources. The kids are constantly leaving the restricted area and I’m just happy I’ve already had the chicken pox when they are jumping all over me. We also started to paint classrooms in a rural fishing village and murals at an orphanage. There was always one quiet, dedicated kid that helped with the thankless task of cleaning, scraping and priming, and many other kids that just wanted to jockey for the camera. Vietnamese children are the biggest HAMS for photos!

In Danang, I helped with fundraising and it felt like old times. I wrote 60-second elevator speeches, developed an annual fundraising plan, wrote fundraising solicitation email templates, assessed staff/volunteer fundraising capacity/roles and reviewed budgets.  There are power outages constantly in Central Vietnam so it gave me a convenient excuse to slip away from the computer and have fun. The highlight of my volunteer work was during one of these goof-off sessions (life lesson: have fun, don’t work too hard, or life passes you by!).  

One of the Danang volunteer sites is a large compound of 200 people, including seniors, babies, disabled children and adults. The residents almost never leave the grounds, except to go to the doctor or when volunteers organize field trips.  One morning, I accompanied three other volunteers to take one of the residents, Tam, to the beach. Tam is a 28-year old man with cerebal palsy. He’s a funny, sweet guy who happens to have no control of his body and is bound to a wheelchair. My friend, Tony, organized the expedition and I’d just assumed he’d taken Tam to the beach on prior occasions. The two big male volunteers lifted Tam into the van and we all chatted during the 10 minute drive to the beach. Tam said he didn’t want to go in the water and we all instantly shot that down and he finally conceded. It was another hot day in Vietnam, and the men took turns carrying Tam the 200 meters from the van to the beach chairs. Tony was prepared and had goggles for Tam, and they carried him to the ocean. When we got into the water and the waves crashed over us, Tam was visibly agitated. However, within minutes he relaxed and we were all laughing, joking and splashing water, taking turns holding Tam. It was such a simple thing and brought us all so much joy. In fact, I think the volunteers may have enjoyed the field trip more than Tam. On the ride home, it was revealed that this was the first excursion to the beach with Tam. And then I realized he had never been to the beach in his life. He didn’t want to go in the water at first, because he had never been swimming. I instantly got all choked up with the realization that Tam has lived minutes away from the beach his entire life, and yet this was the first time he had been in the ocean. He spends his days confined to a sweaty wheelchair, and must have experienced such a sense of freedom floating in the cool, salty water. Even as I write this I get teary all over again. 

In Tuy Hoa, I was honored to participate in a one-week dental mission co-sponsored by the East Meets West Foundation (www.eastmeetswest.org) and the Global Volunteer Network (www.globalvolunteernetwork.org). East Meets West (EMW) is a US-based NGO working with disadvantaged communities in Southeast Asia. EMW operates a dental program in Central Vietnam since over 70 percent of the population lives in rural areas where access to direct dental services is extremely limited. Children who suffer from poor oral health often have difficulty eating, talking, sleeping and growing properly. EMW operates a dental clinic in Danang and also conducts outreach missions in rural areas. An amazing ten-member Vietnamese dental team works side-by-side with volunteer dentists, hygienists, assistants and dental students from around the world to provide free dental services to thousands of poor children annually.

As soon as the EMW team arrived in Tuy Hoa and started to unload the truck to set up the equipment and supplies, I was immediately impressed with their operation. We were conducting the mission at an elementary school, and within hours they had transformed two classrooms into a full-scale clinic with eight dental stations and an infection control room for sterilizing instruments. The conditions aren’t optimal: it’s 95 degrees, no air conditioning, cramped spaces, and loud generators and air compressors are used to power equipment due to constant power outages.  The air compressor breaks down daily and I’m stunned to see one of the dentists in his scrubs taking a break from extractions to fix the machine.  In Vietnam, dentists learn how to repair equipment in dental school since this is the reality of their working conditions.

We see 100 children daily through two four-hour shifts, and collapse with exhaustion during the lunch hour. In the mornings, the children happily arrive, sometimes dressed up for the occasion. They’ve never seen a dentist before (and probably never will again) and have no idea what’s in store for them. Each child gets an oral exam by the chief dentist. She fills out a chart to notate their treatment plan, including fillings, extractions, sealants, scraping/polishing, x-rays and fluoride. My role is basically crowd control – seating children in the appropriate line to wait for their treatment, and then moving them along to their next waiting area.  

On the first day, all the patients are from a deaf residential school. The kids are incredibly brave, patient, learn how to decode their charts (X = extraction), and provide constant care and support to each other. It isn’t until the second day with hearing children that I realize why the deaf children were such troopers. As soon as the first scream erupts from the room, the ripple effect of terror spreads throughout all the waiting lines and many children start crying. Of course, the deaf kids couldn’t hear any screams! I start to term the treatment room the “Palace of Pain.”

I love and hate every single day of the dental mission. It is physically and emotionally draining. I have to maintain order in the treatment room and am constantly keeping terrified children in their seats and preventing them from running out of the room. We have limited time and space, so there are waiting areas outside and inside the room to expedite the process and the dental stations are never empty for more than  ten seconds for a quick sanitized wipe-down between patients. The kids on the inside have to actually watch patients  screaming, being restrained, get injections and extractions – I almost vomited on the first day after watching an extraction. I can’t imagine being five-years old, waiting for hours, witnessing the torture and being frightened of their fate. There are language barriers as well and the children are constantly asking me questions. I try to comfort kids with my limited Vietnamese, and usually just hug them, hold their hand and say “khong dao” or “it doesn’t hurt”(although I feel like I’m lying when kids are screaming everywhere). One little girl keeps trying to ask me something in Vietnamese but I can’t understand her. She runs out of the room before I can catch her and returns a few minutes later and shows me the words written on her hand: “Can you do tenderly.” 

On my second day, I peer into one of the children’s mouths during the initial exam and see fillings. I’m surprised since I thought these kids had never seen a dentist. But then I look again and someone tells me they are rotten holes in their teeth, not fillings. I can also see abscesses from poor dental hygiene which is why they are crying so hard from seemingly non-painful procedures (besides the sheer terror of the experience).  I love every day because the team is incredibly dedicated, efficient, professional and kind. I’m exhausted after the first day and have the easiest role compared to the dentists. And these dentists do this non-stop year-round!  Even though these kids are crying, when it’s all over they are so thankful and happily give us hugs and wave goodbye. I know they will probably never see a dentist again and these services are invaluable. It only costs $10,000 to conduct each rural outreach mission and serve 500 children with emergency and preventative dental care.

Once my volunteer work is completed, I head south to visit my friend, Tiffany, in Nha Trang, Vietnam. She has been volunteering independently for three months at a Buddhist pagoda, orphanage and school, Chua Loc Tho. Fifty people live at the pagoda, including 20 Buddhist nuns and 30 children from babies to teenagers. Another 80 children from the surrounding villages attend school six days a week at the pagoda because they can’t afford to pay for school fees and supplies in their own village.

The head nun is 80 years old and is always working, she never sits still. The pagoda doesn’t have any affiliations with NGOs or the government and runs entirely on donations. Local markets, businesses and individuals donate fresh produce, soy sauce and rice. Occasionally, tour groups stop by and donate money. I had thought the orphanages in Tam Ky were under-resourced, and am astounded to learn about the meager budget of the pagoda. They are too poor to cook with gas and use firewood to cook 230 meals daily. But they are so poor that they use scavenged wood from the grounds including broken branches, bamboo, and discarded wooden boards from buildings. Tiffany has raised thousands of dollars from her family and friends, including $180 for quality long-lasting firewood for seven months. I am continually amazed that such a small amount of money can have such an impact in Vietnam (you can still donate to me on Paypal!).  I’m in awe of Tiffany since she has constructed a new classroom and bathroom; dispensed medicines; and provided food, sporting and school supplies – all without the support of an NGO.

Poverty is relative, and as I’m visiting one day a friend tells me how lucky these children are compared to kids in the rural villages who don’t have access to the pagoda. I spend the morning in the orphanage, and wonder about the fate of these children that will never get adopted. Hours later, I see children playing on the street and know they are the same as the orphans, but have the good fortune to be living with their parents and have a roof over their head. It seems ironic that these lucky children probably still don’t have access to regular electricity and toilets, and are living on a few dollars a day. Every day in Vietnam, I think about how lucky I am to have been raised in the United States.

Today, I’m in Mui Ne, Vietnam enjoying a fabulous beach holiday. I need this time to decompress and relax, and am getting ready to head to Ghana, Africa to volunteer in July.

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