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  Child issues

Giving poor children a reason to smile

Dr Lam Hoai Phuong (centre) and her surgical team perform an operation at the National Hospital of Odonto-Stomatology

Fifteen years ago, when she began to work with the charity group Operation Smile, Lam Hoai Phuong dreamed of how she could change the lives of poor children born with facial deformities.

"I wanted to give them much more than a smile," Dr Phuong says. "I wanted them to be able to speak, drink and eat easily so they could go to school with other children."

Phuong, who works as a plastic surgeon at the HCM City-based National Hospital of Odonto-Stomatology (NHOS), didn’t enter medicine to earn a high salary.

"I never thought I would do this job because of money. Without a heart, the physician cannot heal the patient."

Since 1984 Phuong has been performing charity surgeries for poor children from Vung Tau City, and has worked for Operation Smile since 1989 when the group began its mission in Viet Nam.

She became the first Vietnamese member of Operation Smile International’s volunteer team.Operation Smile has one surgical mission each year in Viet Nam, performing operations on about 1,000 children.

But Phuong and her team at the NHOS also help thousands of others from 32 southern provinces year-round.

Besides the surgeries funded by, the local team performs half a dozen surgical missions each year, mainly in the south, financed by other donors and humanitarian organisations.

"I’ve performed about eight to 10 operations per day at the hospital over the last 15 years, but sometimes 15 cases per day."

Phuong also heads volunteer surgical teams sent to other cities and provinces, including Ba Ria-Vung Tau, Can Tho and Da Nang.

"We carry out between 100 to 150 operations outside the hospital every month."

Speed is important for a doctor during a surgical mission and Phuong maintains a fast pace. She needs only 25 to 30 minutes to complete a cleft palate operation, while most of OS’s visiting doctors need 15 to 20 minutes more.

"There’s no difference between charity and paid surgeries. We even pay more attention to cases of poor patients because they cannot recover quickly if they don’t receive proper care," she says.

"A physician also needs to be creative and flexible in applying Western methods and skills that he or she has learned to treat patients."

Phuong always prescribes antibiotics after operations because of the risk of contamination at local crowded hospitals and at the patients’homes.

Phuong, who heads the NHOS’s Maxillo Facial and Plastic Surgery Department, also teaches at the hospital and the HCM City University of Medicine and Pharmacy.

"Sometimes I’m nearly exhausted after surgeries, but my tension and fatigue seem to disappear when I see my patients make a good recovery."

Each year, Phuong also does voluntary work funded by OS in other countries, including China, India, Kenya, and Laos. "I gain new skills and experience when I work with my peers."

Her hard work paid off when she was sent to the US in 1994 and Canada in 1996 for training courses.

"At that time, it wasn’t easy for a Vietnamese doctor to study overseas," she says. "It wasn’t the thought of staying overseas that excited me, but the thought that I would be able to serve people better with the skills and technologies I would learn."

Her family, at work and at home, is a powerful source of encouragement for her. "I’m lucky as both my families strongly support me."

Her father and teacher, Prof. Lam Ngoc An, who once headed the NHOS, has had a positive impact on her career. "My father guided me in performing my first surgery when I was still at university."

He was Viet Nam’s first doctor to be rewarded with Operation Smile’s Lifetime Achievement Award. Phuong and her father are among 5,000 Operation Smile volunteer surgeons around the world who have received the award.

Phuong’s major concern now is after-care services for patients. She and her team are creating a three-year plan, with aid from international groups like the Australian Rotary organisation.

"The treatment system is complicated and takes time, as it will include dentistry, after-care, and speech therapy so children can speak, drink, eat and breathe after their harelip operation."

Her dream may come true as has recently announced that it will set up care centres in Viet Nam, with the first planned for Da Nang.

Kenneth Atkinson, chair of the Operation Smile Board of Sponsors, said: "We plan to build three care centres in Viet Nam to provide free medical check-ups for children who have already received facial surgery from local or international missions, or who are waiting for treatment."

A mother of two daughters, Phuong empathises with the parents of her patients. She said she understands that people need to cry, and realises why some patients call her "mother".

"It’s just because they say I have given them a second life."

On the weekends, she spends time with her family."I’m lucky because my husband and my two daughters, who are grown up, understand and sympathise with me."

VNS - (15/06/2004)

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