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Medical Missions

Vietnam

Shirvinda Wijesekera, M.D.
Volunteering in Vietnam: Offering More with Less

When I received an invitation to join a medical mission trip to Vietnam I felt honored and privileged.  I arrived in Vietnam not sure of what I would find.  I did know that the goal was to provide spine treatment to the needy in Vietnam who were struggling with spinal deformities like scoliosis and other spine disorders.  These patients had very few choices and options. At home in the States, we would never have allowed these deformities to progress to the magnitude they had.

The weather was warm and balmy, a far cry from the cold of Connecticut in December.  The hospital too was out of a story, lacking privacy and modern equipment.  Patients and their families slept in hammocks, cots, and makeshift stretchers.  However, like home, the patients were warm and friendly.  I have found volunteering to be a deeply rewarding experience.  While we brought with us our expertise and what equipment we could carry, working with less would be the rule.

Most of the cases that I treated were children with terrible spinal deformities. We don’t often come across such profound deformities here in the States, as we thankfully have a system that can provide care to patients before it gets to these levels of severity. The work was challenging, but gratifying. It began with adjusting to deal with austerity of the operating room. Lighting was basic, and surgical tools were scarce. Fortunately we were able to bring with us some tools, and implants to make things safer and more effective. The operating room table was one out of history book, but it served its purpose and I was able to offer relief to those who had suffered the effects of spinal deformity, trauma, and tumors.

One of the most gratifying aspects was to treat the children with severe scoliosis. Many had their lives changed from physical limitation and social isolation. Without us, they would have been ostracized from their community and would have languished on the sidelines of life. We were able to correct the deformities, and the children found a new beginning with their “straightened” spine. They recovered from surgery, while their mothers slept in a hammock beside them. Even pain medication proved to be a limited tool, but the patients and their families were supportive and a testament to their spirit. After the surgical correction, the patients and their families were profoundly grateful and eager to return to their villages and communities with new hopes and dreams of contributing to their worlds.

I believe that volunteering overseas has been one of the most valuable aspects of my career. While the work is challenging, and the time away from home and practice is not easy, the rewards for these patients and myself are spectacular.

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