Brandon Gepford - Medicine in Vietnam
During my time in Hanoi, Vietnam, working at a hospital was a dream come true for me. From my first day to my last day, I experienced what it’s like being a resident surgeon first-hand. Whenever someone asks me "what specialty do you want to get into?" and I tell them plastic surgery with a specialisation in reconstructive surgery, do you know what their first words are? "Oh, you just want to make a lot of money". I laugh and I tell them no; if I really wanted to make money I would work on Wall Street or become a lawyer. I then go on to tell them that there is a lot more to what a plastic surgeon does. Back home in the United States, I’ve shadowed a plastic surgeon and I’ve seen some pretty interesting cases. Before I arrived in Vietnam, I had some exposure to a plastic surgeon’s role, so you can already imagine how excited I was to come to Vietnam to learn more of what a plastic surgeon can do.
My Medical Placement
On my first day I was already exposed to an interesting surgery as I observed how a plastic surgeon operates in the operating room (OR). From the first precise incision using a number-15 blade to the last perfect stitch and snip, the work was flawless and the results were impeccable. I can see why many people come to Professor Son’s department; his reputation and work ethic show why his department is the best in Vietnam. They had patients that were in a motor bike accident and arrived with a small laceration on their forehead. Normally you would get this seen to by a general doctor, but the patients chose to come to his department because the end result is well worth it. From cosmetic elective surgery to general reconstructive surgery resulting from accidents, like a major hand laceration, burned finger, or even a simple breast augmentation, Professor Son’s department is the place to go!
Every morning there was a meeting to discuss both pre and post operation patients. Here they would discuss major cases coming up, or emergency cases that were performed the previous night. You can imagine how thrilled I was, knowing that I took part in these daily activities from assisting patients in the examining room, to the end result of discharging them.
After the meeting, we would typically wait in the cấp cứu (emergency) room for patients to come in for check-ups or emergency cases. A typical day consisted of patient follow-ups, emergency cases, and scheduled surgeries. After work, I made time for the doctors and nurses and if anyone wanted to practice English, I was more than happy to practice and help them. They were happy to better their English, and we discussed practicing English further on Facebook video chat after my departure. I am more than happy to give my time to the staff, as they gave their time to me. I can say without a doubt that their English vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation had improved significantly by the time I left.
The doctors at the hospital were more than kind enough to answer all of my questions. They walked me through the procedure, pointed out anatomy parts, and discussed the techniques used and why that specific technique was used. The work of a plastic surgeon is like watching an expensive piece of art being created; all eyes are on the surgeons, all the lights shine bright. The scalpel is the paintbrush and the patient is the canvas. I witnessed the kind of work these surgeons perform and let me tell you, walking into the OR was like walking into an art exhibition. Some of the cases had me in tears because the work was so beautiful, it was like going to the Louvre Museum and looking at the Mona Lisa.
Some of the most memorable surgeries I observed included a hand and finger reconstruction using a skin flap, building a vaginal wall out of the mucosa of a lip, tissue expansion on the forearm, and elective cosmetic abdominoplasty (a ‘tummy tuck’). On my last shift I went with Professor Son and a couple other doctors to examine burn victim patients; this was charity work for patients in need. That is the kind of work I want to get involved in when I finish my studies. I want to work with Medicines Sans Frontiers and help patients with birth defects and burn victims.
At my placement I worked from Monday through to Friday, starting at 8:00am and leaving when I knew there were no other surgeries or emergency cases. This is where I spent many overnight shifts which was a real treat for me because hearing the bell ring at 3:00am and rushing over to the cấp cứu was awesome, especially seeing the first response to patients. It was a great experiencing what it may be like for a resident getting up in the middle of the night for emergency cases. I observed 28 surgeries and had many patient encounters. On my last shift with Professor Son, we examined 12 burn patient victims. I wish I could have extended my time for this.
Before I took my trip to Vietnam, I was 99.99% certain that medicine was the field for me and plastic surgery was the dream profession. After I left Vietnam, I got my 1% confirmation that the medical field is for me, and plastic surgery is the dream job that I will pursue. I see myself as having my own practice for cosmetic elective surgery, providing charity work at a public hospital, and traveling with Medicines Sans Frontiers in developing countries. The kinds of cases I saw at the Vietnamese hospital touched me emotionally. Seeing the kind of work these surgeons performed, was very rewarding because I see the passion they have and that’s what I want to have. They have a love for their patients and you don’t really see that as common in the United States. People only care about money, but here in Vietnam every one cares about patient care and patient wellbeing. So for me it was a breath of fresh air to be part of the healing process for patients, with money not being an issue. We just focused on the patients.
My advice for any medical volunteers going to Vietnam is this: don’t be afraid to ask questions about the culture and Vietnamese healthcare system. Learn something new outside of your element, stay late and if you can, try an overnight shift or two. Give up some of your time to teach English, as the staff have given their time to teach you and invite you into their departments. Also, coming from your country, the medical techniques, procedures, and patient care will be much different from what you are used to seeing back at home. Please be open-minded, and learn to adapt to the way medicine is practiced in Vietnam. Understand that the people you will work with are living within their means, and may not have the same resources and technology that you do. So, if you are used to seeing or doing something, do not try and correct the staff and change their approach.
I am grateful for this experience because this really opened the doors to my future. It was a great experience to learn about the Vietnamese healthcare system. Compared to the United States, the only thing I would change is a huge pay increase for the doctors in Vietnam because it was difficult to imagine the hard work they do for so little money.
I hope to come back soon. Tạm biệt Vietnam!
This is a personal account of one volunteer’s experience on the project and is a snapshot in time. Your experience may be different, as our projects are constantly adapting to local needs and building on accomplishments. Seasonal weather changes can also have a big impact. Find out more about what you can expect from this project, or speak to one of our friendly Programme Advisors.