On October 31st, a group of 18 volunteers would travel almost 10,000 miles to reach Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. This was my maiden-voyage with the team, and I joined them as a non-medical volunteer. Although I’d traveled to many faraway places, I would soon learn the difference between traveling, and seeing the world.
We filed in as doctors, nurses, students, medical technicians, coordinators, writers, and interpreters. We arrived with different educations, nationalities, skillsets, cultures, and ages. But when united together, we became one. We became a well-oiled machine that performed life-changing surgeries, and brought hope to less fortunate and disadvantaged individuals. Together we became Surgicorps.
The first day was screening day, the time when soon-to-be patients are assessed for surgery. When our team arrived, the waiting room was swelled to capacity with men, women, and children of all ages. They were eager to be seen, yet waited (some for hours) with patience and good nature. Some were there for the first time and others had returned for second and even third surgeries. Many had severe birth defects; cleft palates, missing ears, and other anomalies. There were babies too young to know that they looked unlike other children, even startling. But their parents were well aware and sat joyfully, while they waited for their child to be seen by the surgeons. Although all communication was done through interpreters, the sentiment in that room needed no translation; hope had arrived.
I felt particularly drawn to the burn patients, many who were unsightly. Maybe it was in the knowing that they weren’t born this way. Maybe it was in the knowing that at one time they knew how it felt to look normal or even beautiful; that at one time they knew how it felt to “fit in.” That first day, in screening, we were only required to record the physical source behind the burns; cooking with kerosene on an open flame, a lit cigarette falling into a gasoline can, acid burns, and an electrocution that left a man without arms, or toes. The burn patients understood that there was no magic wand for all of their disfigurements, so they came to see the Surgicorps team in search of a new normal. They underwent surgeries to restore lips that had been seared off, or release fingers that were fused together. One young man was unable to raise his arms when he arrived. Three days after surgery, he proudly posed for pictures with his hands on his hips and a big smile on his face.
Through the help of our interpreters we got to know the burn patients; a group of individuals that didn’t know one another when they arrived, but were tightly intertwined by the time they left. We gave them an opportunity to tell their stories and to talk about how different life was for them now; to talk about the “new normal”. One woman showed us a photo of an exquisite bride on her wedding day. It was a picture of herself, one that was taken before the accident that burned her face beyond recognition.
The group felt comfortable, and safe, when in the company of each other. Opening up about things that they hadn’t spoken of before was like a warm bath to them; a liberating release of emotion. When together, they felt like they “fit in.” They spoke freely about feelings of rejection, and embarrassment in the outside world. Some spoke of feeling helpless, and reliant on family for the simplest of things. The man without arms dreamed of having a single hook one day to replace just one of his arms. He wanted nothing more than to feel independent. When asked what they would hope for, if given three wishes, their selfless answers surprised us all. They wished only to be accepted in a world where physical appearance matters most. They wished this so that they might become employed again, and provide for their families. They wished not to be a burden.
That which does not kill you, will indeed make you stronger, and the patients that we helped are a testament to that. It was a joy to see the happiness in their faces, and the confidence that was restored to them after surgery. I will miss my new friends in Vietnam, and hope to see them next year on our return visit. The trip was life changing, not just for the people that we helped, but also for ourselves. It was as much about what we took home in our hearts as what we left behind.