Virginia Lockett, an American physiotherapist, exams a patient at a hospital in Da Nang/PHOTO COURTESY OF VIRGINIA LOCKETT
An unusual journey from the US to Vietnam took physiotherapist Virginia Lockett and her artist husband David Lockett 11 years, but it is not one that they regret one bit.
In 2006, they sold their house in America and moved for good to a country they’d only visited twice earlier, the first time in 1995.
During the process of making this momentous decision, they’ve been helped by their ability to change the lives of many disadvantaged Vietnamese people for the better.
After settling down in the central city of Da Nang, Lockett started volunteering as a physiotherapist at several local hospitals.
Meanwhile, Steady Footsteps, a non-profit organization that they’d founded prior to their moving, has worked to provide walkers, canes and pump-action carts for poor patients. Funds for this work have come from their savings and donations from other individuals and charities.
Sometimes they provide more than just a piece of equipment.
For instance, a man who had his legs and part of his arm muscles weakened by a spinal cord tumor was helped to open a small grocery shop at home and given a used three-wheel motorbike.
They have also distributed 3,400 helmets to poor people in Da Nang, winning recognition and praise from the city’s Department of Health.
Lockett said they first visited Vietnam to adopt children in 1995.
The trip not only helped them find a daughter and a son but also made her, a professional trained to work with physically impaired people, realize how “hopeless” the situation was for people with disabilities in Vietnam.
Upon learning of her expertise, a man who assisted them with adoption paperwork in the central resort town of Nha Trang took them to meet his 65-year-old father who had been bed-ridden for five years after a traffic accident and a stroke.
The old man’s circumstances would have been much different had he been in the US or Canada, where he would have undergone orthopedic surgery for his injury soon after the accident, and walked again with assisting devices and therapy in a few weeks, she said.
Therapy would have also helped him recover from the stroke, Lockett said.
It struck her then that “there must be thousands and thousands of disabled Vietnamese people, spending their lives on floors and in beds, simply because they lack the medical and rehabilitative care that we take for granted in the west.”
“I didn’t know what I could do about it, but it haunted me.”
Ten years later, in response to a call from a North American non-profit organization, Lockett flew to Da Nang as a volunteer clinical instructor at the Da Nang Orthopedic and Rehabilitation Center.
For the second trip, she packed a variety of devices that she knew was unavailable and unaffordable in Vietnam so that she could give them to her future patients. Many of pieces of equipment were adjusted by her husband, who was also travelling with her, to fit Vietnamese recipients.
Lockett said the trip was long enough for her to realize why physiotherapy in Vietnam was almost ineffective, even with the help of experts from international NGOs.
Instead of being instructed to do functional activities like getting out bed, patients were asked to perform “very simple passive exercises,” she explained, adding assistive devices were also insufficient.
Helping some patients “truly” recover during the time she worked convinced Lockett that she could use her skills and training to improve the lives of many people with disabilities in Vietnam.
Lockett said in an interview with Vietnam Television that in the US, a physiotherapist can get tied up with lots of administrative tasks including documentation and limitations related to insurance, but here in Vietnam, she is free to do the best she can to help her patients recover.
Her dedication has won her a lot of respect and admiration from her Vietnamese colleagues.
“Rain or shine, she always comes to work on time and is dedicated to treating her patients,” said Nguyen Van Anh, director of Da Nang Traditional Medicine Hospital, where Lockett has worked for over the past three years and treated some 3,000 patients so far.
Dr. Nguyen Kim Dieu of hospital praised her treatment methods, saying that depending on each patient’s condition, she would design suitable exercises that can help the patient regain his or her ability to do particular, practical tasks.
While there is an interpreter to help with the language barrier, Lockett is also admired for her ability to communicate well with patients who suffer speech and brain disorders caused by strokes or traumatic brain injuries sustained in road accidents.
She first establishes eye contact with them, and then directly demonstrates what they should do instead of explaining it verbally.
“I love this work and what I’m doing now is what I wanted to do when I first came out of the physical therapy school,” Lockett said.
She said although it might seem “very noble and selfless” of them to leave an American lifestyle for living and working as volunteers in Vietnam, their life here is “so much less stressful and more meaningful” than it was in the US.
The Locketts now also run the Da Nang Artists Company, which markets paintings and embroidery works made by people with disabilities that the wife meets during her volunteering work.
Lockett said they were inspired to establish the company after meeting Nguyen Tan Hien at the Da Nang Rehabilitation-Sanatorium Hospital in 2007.
Hien, who hails from the Central Highlands town of Buon Ma Thuot, had been in the hospital for three years then. His legs and part of his arms were paralyzed after he was hit by a bus.
The accident forced him to stop his university studies as a mathematics major, but it did not prevent him from pursuing his dream of getting into an art school and becoming a professional artist.
He asked Ho Tan Phuong, an architecture student who was paralyzed by a spinal cord tumor, to teach him to draw during free time, so that he could pass the school’s entrance tests.
However, to his dismay, Hien discovered that all drawing classes were on the school’s second floor, meaning that he could not access them on his wheelchair.
Lockett said her husband recognized Hien’s talent and told him that he could become a real artist without going to school, because many famous artists in the world were self-taught.
They asked him to draw pictures that they could use for printing postcards and greeting cards for Steady Footsteps. He was offered US$10 for each picture, and in the end he earned $100 for works that he drew with a pencil tied to his fingers with rubber bands.
Hien said that later, Lockett returned after a short visit to the US and told him two stories that he could illustrate for her.
“She kept encouraging me to continue drawing, and buying my paintings to hang them in her house or give as gifts to others,” he said.
With continuous support from the Locketts, Hien was slowly able to grow from drawing with pencils to doing water colors and even oil paintings.
The American couple helped market his paintings online and found buyers from different parts of the world like Canada, Hong Kong and Singapore.
Hien’s works have since been displayed at a couple of local and international exhibitions. The appreciation and acceptance that he received for his works have given the artist a lot of self-confidence and belief. He is now happily married and works as a consultant for other people with disabilities.
“Throughout my journey, Ms. Virginia and her husband are always by my side. I respect them and love them as my family,” Hien said.
“We’ve helped and worked with lots of people since we were in Vietnam, but Hien is very special to us,” Lockett told Vietnam Television.
“It’s a rare thing when you can have such a big impact on somebody’s life. It’s an honor.”
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