In the summer of 2013, when I was offered a chance to visit Vietnam to meet relatives for the first time since the War and help my parents (both doctors) provide much needed medical care to rural Vietnam, I greeted the opportunity with a nervous optimism. A medical mission to Vietnam would be a great opportunity to experience what my parents do every day: help those in need. In addition, Vietnam was the land of my ancestry, a side of me that I had grown distant from; this was an opportunity to reconnect with my roots. Yet much trepidation concerned me. Will the people I help take me seriously as a high school student? What will they think of my mediocre (at best) Vietnamese?
My nervousness disappeared during my first few days in Hanoi once I started working. Every clinic day was a wonder and a learning experience. In addition to dental sterilization, I worked every station from pediatrics to vital signs, and even the dreaded “crowd control” assignment, in which I had to navigate groups of lost (sometimes restless) Vietnamese patients to their next station, turned out to be not so bad. Every day I observed a different aspect of the medical profession and gained hands-on experience.
But more important, I learned the stories of the people I saw. I met a nine-year-old girl who had walked four kilometers from her rural home to the clinic, a three-hour round trip–this with her six-year-old sibling in tow. I saw a blue baby with a heart condition easily treated in the United States. However, in Vietnam, this baby was destined to die because of insufficient medical care, despite her mother’s steadfast attempts to feed her using a dropper. I quickly realized how desperate people were for basic medical care.
And yet, when I met the patients, I didn’t feel their desperation but only their gratefulness. I realized how just having someone listen to them, value their concerns, and attempt to help them really made a powerful impact in their lives. And as I listened to their words and felt their gratitude, I began to feel the satisfaction that my parents feel on a daily basis by helping the needy. I also truly began to feel connected to my culture; regardless of my skill with the language. At the clinic, I laughed with people 60 years older than me, shared fruits with the locals, handed out stickers to children, and even played a game of pick-up volleyball with the officials.
I was filled with a sense of purpose and a drive to help again. I returned to Vietnam for two more summers and each trip was filled with new discoveries and endless charm. However, one thing remained a constant: the gratitude I felt from each patient, as they bowed, smiled, and emphatically thanked me after I had helped them. That is what motivates me to keep returning.