Volunteer Review: Jeffrey H., Medicine in Vietnam
When I started to tell my friends and family that I was planning to volunteer with Projects Abroad in Vietnam, the first question everyone had was “Why Vietnam?” For me, Vietnam is the pinnacle of exotic. It is place that I had only heard about in textbooks or TV shows. It is a place on the other side of the world that I could scarcely comprehend. It was this idea of the unknown that brought me to Vietnam.
When I arrived here, my preconceived notions of this exotic locale barely scratched the surface. Everything was foreign to me and I loved it, even if it did cause me a little bit of culture shock at the start. By keeping my head down and going with the flow for the first few days, the culture shock quickly faded and I was able to truly start enjoying all that Vietnam had to offer.
Of all the wonderful things you will do in Vietnam, you will most likely spend most of your time at your placement, so let’s begin our discussion there.
My Medicine placement
It was my first day at the National Children’s Hospital. I was riding up the elevator to the sixth floor where the general surgery department is located. Viet, a local staff member, remarked, “You’re sweating”. He was right. I was sweating more than I had in a very long time. The years spent in the idyllic southern California climate had me ill-prepared for the humidity of Hanoi.
I learned two things rather quickly: dress appropriately for the weather and for work (more on this later), and the liberal use of deodorant can be a panacea for excessive weather-related sweating. These lessons were the first of many that have helped me survive and flourish during my first few weeks in Hanoi.
I am going to continue to use my first day as a moor to tie together my thoughts, because in many respects, a vast majority of my lessons were learned on that day. After my enjoyable elevator ride, I was whisked into a meeting with many of the surgeons of the department. These meetings occur on a daily basis at an unspecified time between 7:45am and 8am (get used to things starting when they start) and serve as a way for everyone to be caught up on the previous day’s surgeries.
During my time in this short meeting, I was broadsided by more indecipherable medical terms than I had been in my four years of undergraduate education. My only saving grace came in the form of a pocket-sized Oxford medical dictionary, which allowed me to look up most of the terms that baffled me. I was fortunate enough to have this provided to me by Projects Abroad, but I urge you to bring your own if possible, because it may not always be available.
Another book that is indispensable (and one that I still wish I had brought with me) is an English to Vietnamese dictionary. Many of the surgeons speak fairly decent English, but there will always be something that does not translate well.
After the morning meeting and a brief introduction to the surgeon I would be following for the weeks to come, I was taken through the hospital (which is a literal maze, so it’s best to learn your way around as quickly as possible) to the operating rooms. Here, you have to change into scrubs. It’s best to wear clothes and shoes that are easy to take off and that you do not care about losing (I was notified by a friendly nurse that things sometimes walk off).
You might notice that some surgeons will wear normal clothes under their scrubs, but I don’t recommend this. I have heard of volunteers being reprimanded for this. After changing, I waited three hours for a surgery to begin; this is something you need to just get used to. There are so many things that need to happen in preparation for a surgery that some days it’s bound to take longer than others. Bring a book or your phone or just sleep to help pass the time (everyone else does the same thing).
Once the surgery finally began, I saw more than ever would have been possible in my home country. Take it all in, ask questions, and be attentive. The surgeons and nurses will notice and become more interactive and appreciative of your presence. You can help set up the operating room by positioning lights and large instruments. I don’t recommend helping surgeons and nurses into surgical gowns right off the bat. Take some time to observe the technique before offering to help. I think your role in the operating room can be summed up in a simple phrase: be observant and make yourself available.
When you are not spending your time in the hospital, Projects Abroad will make sure to have many volunteer opportunities to keep you busy. I have had the opportunity to make soap for disadvantaged children and do community education on topics ranging from first aid to water conservation. With all of these events, the more involved you are, the more you will get out of them.
After a long day in the hospital, you might not feel up to doing research for these events or going out to do presentations, but it’s important to get involved. This is just another facet of the experience that you came here for.
My free time in Vietnam
I have spent a decent amount of time talking about the hospital and volunteering, and while you will undoubtedly be spending a lot of time there, that’s not the only reason you chose to come to this country. You came to experience local culture and explore this city and this country. Before I talk about Hanoi, I must recommend traveling on the weekends as much as possible. There are so many breath-taking nature reserves and sleepy hamlets within a few hours of the city that are waiting to be explored.
Now, back to Hanoi. Hanoi is chaos, but in its purest most beautiful form. Traffic laws are a suggestion and everything is done differently than you are used to, but that’s what makes it special. I could go on and on about this city, but in the end everyone perceives things differently and only you can decide for yourself what this city is. All I can really say is ride on the back of a motorcycle taxi, drink warm beer while sitting in small plastic chairs, and say “yes” more than “no”.
Support from staff and fellow volunteers
I see no better way to end this discussion than by talking about the Projects Abroad staff and your fellow volunteers. This is fitting because they will most likely be the first and last faces you see during your time in Vietnam. The Projects Abroad staff could not be a friendlier group of people, and in many respects, they made my time here as enjoyable as possible. Whenever I had any questions or concerns, they were always there to offer assistance, which always put me at ease.
Furthermore, the staff went to great lengths to provide the volunteers with many social activities, including food tours, movies, and mini golfing. These activities also helped to grow my relationship with my fellow volunteers, which was fantastic because they were the people I spent most of my time with for the length of my project. Realistically, during your stay in Vietnam, your fellow volunteers will become like family and will undoubtedly make the difficult aspects of living in a foreign country more bearable.
In the end, each individual volunteer’s experience is as unique as they are and as such, many of the things I have said here may not apply to you. Hopefully, some of my words prove useful and they help to make your time in Vietnam as enjoyable as mine.
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 Program Advisors.