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Published: January 27th 2007
I think I should forewarn those of you who get a bit squeamish: this may not be an ideal blog for you to read. These blogs are not written for shock value or for sympathy. They are simply a true account of the range of highs and lows encountered on each trip, intended to give you as broad a picture as possible of the work that Lifestart Foundation undertakes.
I went to Vietnam this time with a few medical problems on my “to do” list. As should be expected, unforeseen emergencies also pop up that need urgent attention. Here’s what happened on the medical front this trip.
The first “cab off the rank” was 15-year-old Vinh, who attends our Lifestart Foundation Free School. Vinh, an excellent student, studies English at the Lifestart school in the evenings. During the day, he is in year eleven at a government school. Lifestart Foundation pays for his school fees, uniform, and books and also provided him with a bicycle to get to school.
Since birth, Vinh has had a cyst growing on his head. I was told that it was the size of a peanut when he
was small, but as he grew, so did the cyst. The cyst had grown to the size of a large egg and protruded prominently. Quite self-conscious about it, Vinh had taken to wearing his hair long to cover the cyst.
I took Vinh to see a surgeon, initially just to have a chat about a possible surgery and get all of the facts correct. After performing x-rays and examinations, the surgeon announced he was ready to do the operation then and there.
My intention had not been for Vinh to have the operation that day. I thought we would have time to talk it over and think about it, discussing the pros and cons and so forth…but that was not to be the case.
Vinh was as eager to get the cyst whipped off as the surgeon was to put his scalpel to use! Within what seemed like a matter of minutes, Vinh was being admitted while I was panicking. A friend of mine named Dorothee (a delightful French nurse who you may remember from previous travel journals) was on duty at the hospital that day. Much to my relief, she agreed to assist in Vinh's surgery.
I assumed (a big mistake in Vietnam) that Vinh would have a general anesthetic because of the size of the cyst. So after the operation (which went very well, thank goodness) I was a little bemused to hear Dorothee said, “Vinh was very brave, and a tough young man.”
I couldn't understand why he would need to be either tough or brave if he was out cold until it dawned on me…they had done the operation under a local anesthetic! Vinh is now fully recovered, with a cyst-free head and sporting a short hair style.
Little Thanh lives on a tiny boat on the Thu Bon River with his mother, father, three siblings, and grandmother. The youngest in his family, Thanh was one of my unexpected medical emergencies this trip.
Home for this family of seven is a boat that measures one by four metres. Life on these little boats is difficult and dangerous, especially for young children. Even though I constantly work with these families, I am still amazed at how they survive. Try as I might, I will never really understand just how hard their life must be. Life on the
river is scorching hot in the summer months and damp and freezing in the rainy season. I really don’t think it can get much tougher to be landless with a tiny boat as your home.
One night as the family cooked dinner, a big pot of boiling water tipped over onto little Thanh's back. He suffered third-degree burns and was admitted to hospital.
The accident occurred at the same time that the Australian Navy arrived in Hoi An (a previous blog story). I spoke to Navy personnel about Thanh's burn, and they kindly sent their doctor and medic to treat him. Our little school is very versatile—a desk soon became a medical examination table, our classroom quickly became a temporary clinic. We had to get Thanh out of the hospital for the Navy doctor to look at him.
I don’t know what the Navy doctor put on Thanh's burns, but it resulted in a super-speedy recovery and (most importantly) prevented infection. The doctor called Thanh a tough little soldier, as he didn't flinch while being examined or treated.
A bright and adorable little three-year-old, Thanh had to wear a girl’s skirt during his ordeal, which he
did without complaint. What I found the most astonishing though was that I didn't once hear him cry or complain. All I could think about was how much pain a tiny steam burn the size of a pinhead causes me, and here was a three-year-old with a massive burn and not a whimper!
Thanh has fully recovered. He will be left with some scarring and change of colour to the pigment of his skin.
THUAN'S SKIN PROBLEM
Ten-year-old Thuan attends the Lifestart Foundation Free School. I will never forget meeting him for the first time. It was more than a year ago, and on this particular day I was interviewing and assessing potential students for the not-yet-opened Lifestart Foundation Free School.
Thuan arrived and waited patiently for his turn. When his turn finally came, I asked him to tell me his name; a simple question, I thought. Yet, he had no reply. He actually did not know his name! I later learned that he had never been addressed often enough by his name for him to register that he was “Thuan”! In the early days following the school’s opening, Thuan had most of us oldies in tears a lot of the time; he was such a sad, lost, and withdrawn little fellow.
Thuan was suffering from very severe staphylococcus, an acute skin disease, over most of his little body. Bathing in the polluted river each day (Thuan does not have a bathroom at home) exacerbated the staphylococcus. His parents could not afford to take him to the doctors, so his skin had open wounds and was in very bad condition by the time I arrived in Hoi An on this trip.
After a visit to the doctors and a correct diagnosis, Thuan received medication to treat his problem. He also needed to have his skin bathed daily in clean water. Robyn, a volunteer who is a retired nurse, treated and bathed Thuan twice each day (he loved getting all of this attention!). We purchased clean water to wash his skin, and he stood in a little plastic dish for his baths. Thuan also was also treated with antibiotics internally and externally.
After two weeks, his skin improved and began to heal.
I am also happy to report that Thuan has absolutely blossomed at school. He is still shy but nowhere near as withdrawn and timid as he was when I first met him. He is happy, loves coming to school, and is no longer in doubt of who he is. He knows that he is Thuan, and he knows that he is special.
There are quite a few medical stories so I will sign off on Part 1 for the time being and post Part 2 at a later date.
Lots of Love from Karen.
For more information about Lifestart Foundation
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