On Friday 5/31, we visited a Phu Vang clinic in the suburban area about 20 minutes driving distance from Hue city. The weather was really nice that day and we arrived there around 8:15 am. We were instantly surrounded by about 50 people, most of them elderly or children. It was loud. People stood, walked, and sat down in the hallways, as well as on the stairs. The sound of the people talking, giggling, and babies crying made this place become more chaotic. Most of them had been there since seven in the morning with the hope of receiving their free general check-ups and medicines. We could see happiness on their faces when our folks arrived at the clinic. One of the most memorable things I could remember about the old ladies whom I met at the clinic was that their teeth were black. Although this thing wasn’t new to me as a local person, what came to my mind was the difference in cultural and medical practice throughout different region of the world. Here in America, we perceive whitening teeth as parts of beauty and strong dental health, but in Vietnam, many old ladies dyed their teeth black to make them stay stronger.
We all felt overwhelmed by the crowd. Each of us quickly settled down and took his or her specific role as assigned at the beginning. Some would go help the pharmacists or doctors while the others became door keepers and guides. We switched with each other to make sure no one had to do the same task during the visit. This flexible arrangement made the day more meaningful for us and more efficient for the healthcare providers. The most stressful position was helping the pharmacists. The pharmacy room was surrounded by a crowd of about 25 people, some giving the prescriptions to us, and some waiting for their medicines. Some elderly showed their anger for waiting so long despite the fact that we had been working non-stop since arriving. Calling the patient’s names was also a “challenge” because we had to speak Hue dialect and the doctors’ handwriting made it more difficult for name calling. People in this area have strange names that I have never seen before. Some have same name; therefore, we had to pay attention to the specific location where they lived to determine the right person. I helped out at the pharmacy room half of the time, right there I unexpectedly learned a bunch of lessons along the way. I experienced the shortage of medication and affordable healthcare for people in this suburban area. There was a lady who just wanted to take as many free medicines as possible even though the pharmacist prevented her from taking someone else’s free medication. Some people called her “greedy”, but I think the lack of health education and wrong perspective on the relationship between health and medicines leads to such that situation. I switched around, once becoming a door guide, and also shadowed the doctor. The doctor welcomed us with a nice smile and he carefully explained each patient’s case, symptoms, and possible treatments. As for my observation, many patients came to the doctor with heart disease, back pain, and spinal cord problems. These can be treated if they are detected early and the patients take medicines regularly. However, life is so desperate here; a lot of patients here couldn’t afford to pay for their doctor visits and medicines. They let their bodies suffered until they are getting worse and worse. Patients did not only come to the clinic to do their check-ups, but each individual also brought us their own needs and stories. The fact is that we didn’t shadow the doctors; instead, we actually shadowed the patients.
At the clinic, I was both shadowing and interpreting for the non-Vietnamese speakers who wanted to learn. At this point in my life, I felt like everything I did in the past was worth it. I used to be an ad-hoc translator for my parents, and later became a member of Volunteer Health Interpreting Organization on campus. These experiences have been built up day after day and this trip is a proof of my improvement in health-related interpretation. I was exhausted at the end of the visit, but learned more about life in general, and about people at Hue, my hometown. This visit gave me some interesting insights into the inner life of suburban healthcare, an unrevealing part that I missed out when growing up as an urban person.
-- submitted by Hoai Huong Ngo, UC Berkeley