Four days down. One to go. Tomorrow is Friday. We will look to push through 8 or 9 more patients and then start packing for home. I sense the horse must be smelling the barn because the team ran at an amazingly fast clip today. Between cases 3 and 4, volunteer Dr. Bauer Horton from Baylor College of Medicine also managed to squeeze in an educational seminar on post-trauma, free-flap reconstructive surgery for about 45 Vietnamese plastic surgeons and medical students. The fisherman from Texas taught a few locals how to fish today.
The first case today in OR 1 was simple. Clean and basic. I looked at the operating table and gave a long sigh, especially after seeing some of the head-to-toe, 4+ hour insane surgeries we had yesterday. Draped on the table was a Vietnamese woman’s right foot that had been burned across the top 10 years ago by a wayward pot of hot water. Since the accident, her foot constricted, forcing her to walk on her heel. Most of her toes fought to point straight up with the little piggy winning the battle.
Indian-born Kriti Mohan, volunteering as a medical student/soon-to-be doctor from Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas, explained they would be using a technique on this woman’s foot known as the jumping man flap. I pulled out a small tablet, and Kriti drew a diagram showing where the cuts would land and what they would do once the skin was freed up. Our exchange felt like a game of street football where the quarterback draws out a play on the dirt.
I looked down in my notebook and saw a zig zag of triangle shapes which Dr. Mohan called flaps. No surprise, the diagram looked like a stick man jumping in the air with his arms waving around. The goal was to take the tips of these triangles, twist them left or right and thereby release the tightened skin on this poor woman’s foot. Some days from now, a few rounds of bandages removed, this woman gets to walk around like most in this town. Her toes will be treated with a similar procedure. As I watched Dr. Mohan cut and sew, I wondered what kind of shoes this woman would one day pick out. How nicely her foot would slide into them. I wondered how much self-esteem she would gain from looking down at a nice pair of shoes gracing her own feet.
A mission like this genuinely allows a wonderful a country like Vietnam to unfold in front of you with every step. The town is gritty and hard. The people are gracious and kind. The challenges are extreme as you hope to make your way in this neck of the woods. I just hope we can shed a little light here in the dim of this burn hospital. With four days behind us, I know we are doing all right. What I love is how our passionate donors have empowered us. Simply put, they have given us the nod to draw little jumping men all over people.
This entire week was a steady and well-trained-for performance. Today is Friday, our last day of surgeries. Today we fly mid-air in a blur of twists and turns and stick our landing. Today we will soak in the remaining hours as guests in this beautifully layered, tough but graceful country. Having been witness all week to helping Vietnamese men, women and children who have suffered burns, we leave with awe stuffed in our pockets.
I promise I won’t go heavy on you today. The mission has been thick with cases where written description and photographs would simply be too much. I’ll just leave it at this. If you have ever given a dime to our foundation or would ever do so in the future, it’s a bell-ringer of a time to reflect on that thought. Five days straight. Eight to ten cases a day. We took donor passion and turned it into surgical solutions for people loaded with excruciating problems. Keep it coming, friends.
They always say the character of a team is a reflection of their coach. Coach here being Tom Flood, a Vietnam-era veteran with the U.S. Army and Air Force and retired R.N. who ticked 25 years at the Methodist Medical Center in Houston. Tom is easy to track down in these halls as he’s as tall as a starting forward and bald as a sand dune. A steady dose of smiles always swirl in his wake. Tom’s been running medical missions for 12 years now and knows how to navigate the nuts and bolts of this dance. Hands, burns, urology, cleft-lips and palates. If you’re clay-dirt poor and live in a developing country and need surgery, Tom Flood is a welcomed friend.
Our volunteer surgical team has bonded. Laughed together. Strange food has been shared. We are all staying at the Perfect Hotel, which is a $1 taxi ride from the hospital. Ironically, the hotel isn’t perfect. It’s just the name of the place. In the lobby there is a giant mural painting of a tiger, an eagle and a shark all trying to eat each other in a mad battle. The downstairs restaurant smells like old hot-dog water. “No Smoking” signs are on every wall, usually with an ashtray positioned directly below. That said, it’s basic and cheap and by all accounts, for us it really is the perfect hotel. Our long days render us hound-dog tired, and a bed is all we need.
Tomorrow we’ll all say goodbye to Vietnam. An old friend for some. A new friend for others. It will be like letting go of a comforting hand. We hope to take with us the kindness and sincerity of a Vietnamese mom and dad, and the charm of a Vietnamese child, with eyes dark and wet as strong black coffee. This friend we all call Vietnam. Hope to see you soon.