Helping hands for those in need

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Writing the story "What each of us can and should do" for Vietweek (February 15, 2013) was an eye-opening experience. Prior to gathering the information that went into that story, I had no idea the amount of effort that was being directed to the seriously needy victims of extraordinarily difficult problems in health related tragedies here in Vietnam.

From disfiguring tumors to the loss of limbs, some problems are the direct result of the Vietnam War: Unexploded Ordinance (UXO) blows up on people's farmland and even in homes; millions of liters of poisonous chemicals such as Agent Orange were indiscriminately sprayed over hundreds of square kilometers of land and over the homes, crops and water supplies of millions of people.

The global community of people and organizations working to aid these people is truly amazing. The story I wrote included information about a sample of these that became known to me while researching the story.

But I was also introduced to many more who were not included.  One of these is a Vietnamese doctor whose contributions to the assistance of these people have earned him a special place among these benefactors: Dr. Nguyen Thanh Liem, former director of the National Hospital of Pediatrics in Hanoi and currently director of Hanoi VINMEC Hospital.

Dr. Liem's name came up in correspondence with a number of the most active participants in these programs. The first time was in a letter from Sam Seyadoussane, known simply as "Sam of Ottawa," who was featured in the February 15 article, to Chuck Searcy of Veterans for Peace and Project Renew, another of those most active in these endeavors.

According to Sam's letter:

"Dr. Liem was the only doctor responding to my call to help Vietnamese children hit with the dreadful genetic skin disease Epidermolysis Bullosa (EB). The world mortality rate is for this disease is 87 percent, meaning more undoubtedly die in Vietnam! Nguyen The Nam, a Dan Tri news reporter, called me in late September 2010 to find help for a case of EB that made the news then. The challenge was that EB children were turned away from hospitals in Vietnam and let to suffer or to die... quietly, as no doctors in Vietnam knew how to treat EB.

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"We (VM2N, Virtual Medical Miracle Network) helped turn the page: I connected with DebRA International (Dystrophic Epidermolysis Bullosa Research Association), the world's largest EB organization, and in August 2011 we brought an EB medical mission from Australia and New Zealand to Vietnam (Franco-Viet Hospital in Ho Chi Minh City and Dr. Liem's National Hospital of Pediatrics in Hanoi). Robin King Austin of VinaCapital Foundation was also working with VM2N on this EB endeavor.

"A guide was published in Vietnamese on how to do proper bandaging and dressing for EB children along with EB Questions & Answers. This information covered the only known ways to reduce infections and thus mortality. The guide was widely distributed in Vietnamese hospitals and posted on EB DebRA International website, the Hanoi NHP website and Nhan Dan Online for download. Thus a Vietnamese doctor aided his own country and in the process made a major contribution to an international health problem.

"In the course of treating EB patients since October, 2011, Dr. Liem proceeded to perform Vietnam's first-ever Bone Marrow Stem Cell Transplants to treat EB. These were do-or-die operations as there was no other choice for some very serious cases. Of the three operations, all three were successful in late 2011 and early 2012. Vietnam, thus, has become only the second country in the world to treat EB using Bone Marrow Stem Cell Transplants."

Sam' letter finishes: "Dr. Liem has since started working with Hanoi's state-of-the-art VINMEC hospital and wants to help it set up an Oncology Center of Excellence... to treat many kinds suffering with cancer, I don't have the details as yet."

I am writing about this because I hope it will help convey the message of the involvement of Dr. Liem and others in the work of medical charity here. It also points out the fact that in spite of possible expat opinions to the contrary, there is some excellent and internationally respected medical work being done in Vietnam.

Chuck Searcy's name comes up almost as frequently as Sam Seyadoussane when it comes to helping victims. Recently Chuck was advised through Sam's network of a terrible accident in Quang Binh. A 28-year-old farmer, father and husband was preparing food on his farm land when a long-buried cluster bomb from the American bombings exploded from the heat of the cooking fire nearby, taking both hands and both eyes in a devastating blast. 

Sadly, nothing can be done to restore the hands or the sight of farmer Nguyen Van Luong, but in addition to his terrible physical loss, his family faced huge hospital bills for his treatment. When Chuck learned of this, he contacted Tran Hong Chi, Clear Path International Vietnam Country Director.

Clear Path International (CPI) delivers survivor assistance, mine risk education and capacity building programming to people and organizations living and working in conflict-affected communities throughout the world. According to their mission statement: "CPI works to restore dignity and self-sufficiency to conflict survivors. We provide innovative, high-impact programming that is scalable, replicable, measurable and cost-effective."

As a result of this connection CPI has begun working with the hospital and family to assist with their bills and Luong's recovery.

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By Richard McKenzie, Thanh Nien News (The story can be found in the April 12 issue of our print edition, Vietweek)*

* The writer is an American expat who lives in Nha Trang   

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