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Angela Harrington - Medicine in Vietnam

Angela poses in her scrubs in Vietnam

Modern medical education, specifically surgical, has been modelled around principles articulated by Chinese philosopher and reformer Confucius: “I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.” However, in the United States, this learning process doesn’t begin until successful acceptance to medical school following the completion of four years of undergraduate schooling.

Due to liability concerns and patient privacy laws such as HIPAA, it is nearly impossible to even observe a surgery as an undergrad student, particularly in my small Midwestern suburb. I’ve heard horror stories of students spending four years of their lives studying pre-med, only to get to med school and pass out in the operating room. There are many aspects of surgery that you can’t prepare yourself for until you experience it first-hand, like the smell of burning flesh and bone.

Determined not to waste four years of my time and money on a major that would later prove useless, I decided to start pursuing internship opportunities through Projects Abroad. I chose Vietnam because I have family just outside of Hanoi, so I never even considered any other destinations. My time overseas was truly an extraordinary, life-changing opportunity, all thanks to the incredible surgeons of Bệnh Viện Nhi (BVN) as well as the spectacular Projects Abroad staff.

My Medicine placement

Angela conducting a basic health screening

Angela learning how to do health checks at her medical placement

Interns conduct health checks at their Medicine placement

Medicine interns working on health checks in Vietnam

I started in the general surgery department at BVN. Rather than following around one specific doctor every day, I found it much more efficient to look at the schedule ahead of time and then rotate between the operating rooms accordingly.

Because I intend to go into neurosurgery, I stayed primarily in the neuro operating room after my first week. However, all the surgeons at BVN showed me immense amounts of generosity, patience, and warmth. I was concerned initially about the language barrier hindering communication, but I had virtually no trouble getting to know the surgeons. My Vietnamese is subpar at best, but often I would address the surgeons in Vietnamese and they would respond in English. For example, I would ask in Vietnamese what the name of the surgery was, and they would tell me the English name for it.

I also enjoyed chatting with the surgeons and nurses in Vietnamese, and my unique situation provided an excellent topic of conversation. However, it did come with some less desirable aspects as well. Wearing my lab coat around the hospital and its surrounding areas meant that parents would frequently approach me with questions about their child or completed paperwork, and I would have to apologize and say I was only a volunteer from America.

My accommodation

The Projects Abroad staff went above and beyond to ensure that my trip was as fantastic as possible. I truly felt that they valued me as a person, rather than viewing me as just another volunteer that they had to talk to because it was their job. In fact, I really felt like the staff were my friends, and genuinely enjoyed my company. Big V, Little V, Tuyet, and Riyaad contributed significantly to how great this trip was for me. Without their sincere concern and care, I wouldn’t have felt so safe and secure.

Tuyet was so kind and accommodating to all of my wishes. She made my favourite dishes, did her best to fulfil my special requests, and kept the fridge stocked with salted butter despite the fact that I went through an entire block every week.

I was torn between choosing a host family or the volunteer house, but I am glad I stayed in the house. During the majority of my stay, there were only about two or three other volunteers in the house with me, which meant everybody got their own room. I felt like the smaller amount of people allowed us to get closer with each other and develop stronger bonds. In fact, we still talk most days in our group chat, even though we’ve all gone our own separate ways now.

Although living with a host family absolutely has its benefits, I would recommend to anybody who is conflicted like I was to choose the volunteer house. You will be more “in the loop” and included in nightly activities, such as going out for dinner or drinks. The relationships and bonds that I formed in the house are just one more of the abundant takeaways that I will cherish forever.

Angela Harrington

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