Read as Michael tells about his long awaited mission trip to Vietnam. He details the complexities and challenges of providing free clinical care in a developing country, as well as the benefits of such a changing experience. Read more to see how his experience shaped his understanding of global health.
On the night of August 3rd, 2015, I arrived at LAX airport with my luggage and medical supply box. I said goodbye to my family and went through lines for check-in and customs. Soon enough, I walked to the next terminal alongside a crowd of close-knit individuals, both familiar and unfamiliar to me. We, a group of students from UCI, UCLA, and UCSD, were about to embark on a 2-week medical mission trip to Vietnam, an opportunity that so many of us had been waiting for.
Since I started college, I have been a part of Medical, Educational Missions and Outreach (MEMO), a nonprofit, humanitarian organization that aids the underserved through medical and educational means. During the school year, members participate in local volunteering events and fundraisers to sponsor the mission trip’s services in Vietnam. These include the Medical Program (setting up clinics for free check-ups and prescriptions to villagers in rural areas), the Scholarship Program (awarding students a full year’s worth of education in school), the Hope Program (providing funds for orphanage upkeep), and the Heart Program (granting life-saving surgeries for kids with congenital heart disease).
Even though I had been a part of this great program for years, before my junior year, I had no intentions of going on an overseas mission trip. I never really thought about the difference between helping communities internationally and locally. Throughout my time at UCLA, however, I developed interests in public health and Asian American studies. I came to the realization that I wanted to pursue a career that would allow me to directly assist the health of Southeast Asian populations. After hearing the stories of members who went on past trips and learning about their new perspectives on what it meant to help underserved communities, I was inspired to go on MEMO’s 9th mission trip. I not only wanted to directly take part in service for a developing country, but I also hoped to strengthen my Vietnamese roots by immersing myself into the culture of my family’s homeland.
Almost twenty hours and two plane rides later, we finally landed and settled in Vietnam. For the first part of the mission trip, we took a tour of the University Medical Center (Bệnh Viện Đại Học Y Dược), located in Hồ Chí Minh City. As we walked around the different floors, there were crowds of patients at the hospital, some sat at the waiting areas while others waited outside in the humid weather. After talking with hospital representatives, I learned that although there is universal healthcare in Vietnam, not everyone has the chance to see a doctor. This is especially true for those living in rural areas because they lack money and transportation. Even those who have the resources must wait hours to see a doctor, and hundreds of patients followed that routine each day.
During a conversation with Drs. Christopher and Christine Bui, two health professionals who accompanied us on the mission trip, I learned that the class disparities in a developing country like Vietnam are far greater than in developed countries. Despite the growing modernization and number of high-end shopping malls in the city, those from the lower class could never afford to buy high-end clothes or jewelry, let alone basic living commodities. Just after the first day of this trip, I was left to reflect on these lessons and I asked myself, what other outside forces affect the quality of health for villagers in Vietnam?
A Children’s Hospital
We spent the next days traveling to the Ninh Thuận province for our first clinic site. This was a hospital specifically for children 0-17 years old with congenital heart defects, so a lot of us (myself included) brought out toys, balloons, and bubble blowers to lighten the atmosphere. We also walked around and talked to the many parents that were present. One single mother told us about her son, Đạt, and his congenital heart disease. She explained how she could never afford to take her son to the a doctor for checkups. When she found out about MEMO’s free services, the mother took the opportunity to bring both of her sons, Danh (left) and Đạt (right), for health checkups and screen her child’s heart condition. It may have been a short conversation, but it was powerful enough to expand my worldview about the impact of the health clinics MEMO sets up. Just hearing these stories from the patients themselves made me more aware of how economics plays a large role in the access Vietnamese villages have to medical care.
A few hours into the afternoon of our first clinic site, we began to set up stations for blood pressure checkups and dental care. We started seeing patients at each of our stations when, almost at once, hospital officials told Dr. Timothy Bui, a dentist accompanying MEMO, that we could not continue our clinic services and needed to shut down early. There were still patients in the waiting area, so many of us wondered, why the staff would want to stop us. Apparently, there was a miscommunication between the facilities and MEMO. We were supposed to observe the hospital screenings rather than set up our medical and dental services. This was not the first time MEMO’s clinics were confronted. On a previous mission trip, local Hue government officials had shut down all scheduled health clinics. Yet, even with the knowledge of a prior shut down, I hadn’t expected an interruption of services during my trip.
Sometimes there is no clear explanation as to why such projects are denied, but developing countries may see outside aid as unnecessary or simply a “Band-Aid solution” with no long-term impact. The shut down was my first exposure to the politics of mission trips, and I have come to realize that international aid efforts are still a work in progress. Despite the setbacks, I am glad that MEMO could directly contribute to patients there. MEMO ensures that their assistance falls into the right hands. Rather than giving medical supplies to the government to distribute, MEMO members are the ones who directly provide treatment and services in order to ensure that resources are directed toward our target population.
Visit to the Orphanage
Once the clinic was over, we continued forward with our mission trip programs as we returned to Hồ Chí Minh City. During the next few days, we visited two orphanages. I think everyone who went can agree that the first orphanage, Cô Nhi Viện Thiên Bình, was one of the happiest parts of the trip! We got to play games with the kids and hand out toys as they waited for dental check-ups. Although it was disheartening to learn that families abandoned both kids and elderly parents at the orphanage, we saw that there were many staff members and volunteers who fully take care of them. It was wonderful to spend a fun day with everyone and many of us left with warm smiles in the end.
The next orphanage, Chùa Kỳ Quang, was not as light-spirited; the children we visited had mental illnesses and disabilities that could no longer be treated. One of the cases that stood out to us was hydrocephalus, where babies who have abnormal fetal development accumulate an imbalance of fluid in the brain. I still recall the tears that fell down from the eyes of my team members when we found out that, while this disease is preventable in the U.S., these orphans would die in the next few years. The lack of medical knowledge and financial resources hindered families from obtaining proper treatment for their children, and so these kids were left at the orphanage for care. I have faith that someday, with enough medical support, conditions like hydrocephalus will become fully preventable in Vietnam.
The Importance of Culture
One of the last sites during the trip was Bình Hoà Nam Elementary School in the Đức Huệ district of the Long An province. The Scholarship Program was what originally attracted me to join MEMO in the first place. Coming from a low socioeconomic background, I needed to apply to countless scholarships and write numerous essays to fund my college education. I was glad to see that MEMO provided aid on a holistic scale, as the organization emphasizes how these funds ensure that children in Vietnam can stay in school and build themselves out of poverty, rather than enter the workforce at an early age. When we went to the school, however, we arrived hours late, and many of the students had grim expressions left on their faces. In an almost hurried manner, we lined up in groups of 10 to hand out backpacks and envelopes of money. Then we took pictures with the students on stage, but other than that…that was it.
I realized that while it is important to offer services that benefit the community, service or mission trips require an engagement of culture to develop a more enriched understanding why these programs are needed. We came too late to interact with the students. We weren’t able to ask them how school was like for them or what they hoped to be when they grow up.
It was a different experience from the clinic. At the clinic, we were able to hear about a single mother and her child firsthand. However, while we may not have gotten the same experience at the school, I believe that these scholarships will help kids grow up with greater opportunities to live optimally. There is still a need to “help Vietnam help itself,” and these medical and educational efforts are the first steps in planting the seeds that will grow into a sustainable future for Vietnam and its children.
What I’ve Learned
There are not enough words that can fully capture all of the lessons I have taken from this mission trip. Nevertheless, I can say that my perspective on healthcare has significantly changed after these tangible experiences. I now understand the interdisciplinary values of global health and how social concepts like governmental policy and linguistic knowledge directly impact medical services. After my time spent in MEMO, I realize that there are significant differences between local and international efforts to assisting health care systems. There is no one-size-fits-all solution, as different aspects of economics, politics, and culture all shape the social conditions that influence the specific needs of these populations. This new global perspective has redefined my overall mission for entering the public health field, in hopes of reducing health disparities in both Asian and Asian-American communities.
Now I can confidently answer the question, “Why should someone go on a mission trip?” If you have a desire to help populations internationally, I encourage you to take the opportunity to become actively involved in service that academia alone cannot provide. The lessons you encounter and new people you meet with hands-on work will linger with you longer than reading textbooks and listening to lectures. Every person has a different history and background, so ask yourself what you hope to gain from such a trip, and come in with an open and eager mind to step out of your comfort zone and prepare for an irreplaceable adventure.
Human Biology and Society, B.S.
Intended Global Health Minor
Medical, Educational Missions and Outreach (MEMO) at UCLA