Volunteers from Washington state say one trip wasn’t enough: They’ll continue to provide medical services to the needy children of Vietnam, a nation still struggling to rebuild two decades after the war with the United States.
The 42-member Operation Smile medical team, which includes seven doctors and nurses from Washington, went to Vietnam in November. Now, as Vietnam and the United States commemorate the 20th anniversary of the end of the war, the team of medical personnel is preparing for another charitable mission to Southeast Asia.
“Few of the patients we see have injuries resulting from the Vietnam War,” said Dr. Tom Gant, an Edmonds plastic surgeon. “About 70 percent of the country’s population was born since the war.”
Gant remembers one patient - a little girl - who was scarred so badly by burns that she could not move her head.
“She not only was ostracized because of the scars, but she couldn’t work or even function very well,” said Gant, president of the Washington state chapter of Operation Smile, a national organization of medical volunteers that aims to “change the world one smile at a time.”
In a marathon 14-hour surgery in the children’s hospital in Ho Chi Minh City, Gant and others fixed the cleft palate that had been impeding a little boy’s speech.
Being rewarded with the smiles and tears of his family is part of what drives the team, Gant said.
“His whole family was at the hospital to be with the boy, and I was returning him to them. They were smiling and tears were coming down the father’s cheeks,” he said. “We couldn’t speak each other’s language, but we communicated. We both knew what each other felt.”
That poignant moment last November is what makes the work so rewarding, Gant said. The group preparing to go to the city of Da Nang on Nov. 6 will include 12 from the region, he said.
“This kind of thing improves our skill levels tremendously, because we work on things we don’t see often in this country,” he said.
“But we do this because of the tremendous sense of accomplishment and good will you experience when you take a child back and hand it to its mother and see their faces.”
Before last November’s visit, other doctors had already screened 2,500 children and selected about 250 as candidates for surgery, Gant said.
After operating for six of the 14 days they were there - and working 14 to 16 hours a day - Gant said they were able to operate on 186 children.
Vietnamese counterparts were trained to perform followup examinations after the Americans leave.
Money to support Operation Smile’s Washington state chapter comes from philanthropic foundations, businesses such as Nintendo of America, and individuals.
Teams usually go for two-week stints to such places as Vietnam, China, the Philippines, Kenya, Romania and South American countries.
Operation Smile was founded in 1984. The Washington state chapter was founded four years ago.