In a remote village in Hue, central Vietnam, Ha Len’s parents only wish was for their daughter to have surgery for her cleft palate so that she could look like the other children. But it is something they could never afford. And even if Ha Len received the surgery, they knew that she might not live long anyway—by some cruel twist of fate, in addition to a completely cleft lip and palate, Ha Len was born with a congenital malformation of the heart known as Tetralogy of Fallot that left her heart with four anatomical abnormalities that hindered the normal flow of blood to the lungs, resulting in a blue tint to the skin and lips. Although a palliative shunting procedure was performed when she was very young, Ha Len still had “blue lips,” but because of the severity of her conditions, even charity surgical teams from Europe and the United States had declined to attempt a permanent surgical correction of her heart.
In April 2009, Ha Len and her parents met Dr. Sum Tran during a medical mission in Hue with a team of US doctors. Having reviewed her medical records, Dr. Sum agreed to perform surgery on Ha Len’s lip. Given the complexities of her case, it was a difficult procedure, yet against all odds, the operation was a success. It was a joyous moment for both her family and the members of the medical team.
Yes, life can be full of miracles too!
It is this joy and happiness of bringing smiles to people like Ha Len that keeps Dr. Sum and his medical missions returning to Hue, year after year.
Like many Vietnamese people, Dr. Sum and members of the Trantien family fled Vietnam as the Communists descended upon Saigon in 1975. They settled in different continents—Australia, Europe, and the US. Though far from their motherland and separated, the Trantien family bond remains strong, and their hearts and minds close to those they left behind. Despite the upheavals, they bear a proud sense of their family lineage dating back generations to the mid-17th century. Their forefathers were “boat people” who fled China to settle in Hue; they named their village “Minh Huong” in remembrance of their Ming homeland. Among them were scholars and officials in the courts of imperial Vietnam, and medical practitioners who served the community and attended to the poor.
In 2005, with attitudes toward overseas Vietnamese changing amid Vietnam’s economic development and modernization, members of the Trantien family returned to Hue for a reunion, visiting their ancestral home in Minh Huong. To their dismay, they found that living conditions remained very backward. Many people were in extreme poverty and there was a lack of basic medical care.
Deeply concerned about the situation, the descendants of the Trantien family decided to revive the family tradition of serving the community and caring for the less fortunate through the provision of free medical and social services. In April 2005, headed by Dr. Sum, the Trantien Foundation was established. Mobilizing financial support from family members, the 200-year-old ancestral home in the family’s inherited estate was renovated and converted for use as a free walk-in clinic named Thien Sanh Free Clinic (Thien Sanh meaning “Birth of Goodness”).
Dr. Sum’s cousin Tran Thi Nhu Mai, a pharmacist and a 10th-generation Trantien descendant, and her husband Dr. Doan Van Quynh, former vice-dean of Hue College of Medicine, manage the estate and the clinic. It is affiliated with the Tue Tinh Duong Hai Duc, a division of the Hue Buddhist Association, which provides free community healthcare in Hue. Using an integration of Western and traditional medicine, the clinic provides free primary care to some 40 patients daily, most of whom are from poor backgrounds and live in the surrounding villages. To raise awareness of common illnesses and medications, health education programs and materials are organized. Regular qi gong workshops are conducted for the elderly to help them maintain good health and reduce stress.
The estate also houses the Minh Trai Kindergarten, an education project under the Trantien Foundation established in 2010 to provide free preschool education to about 50 children in the area aged 4–5. Without access to preschool education, children from poor families would otherwise have been left in the care of grandparents or neglected at home while their parents work. The kindergarten provides a safe, conducive environment in which the children can learn and play, and even enjoy a healthy lunch and snack during class. The kindergarten is affiliated with Dieu De Kindergarten, a division of Hue Buddhist educational system, and Buddhist moral values form a key part of the curriculum.
But for Dr. Sum, what really touched his heart in Hue was the suffering of those with severe physical deformities and disfigurements from injuries, burns, trauma, disease, or birth defects. Unable to afford treatment, or with no access to medical facilities, these people live in fear and isolation, often shunned by the community. Furthermore, local surgeons lacked the knowledge and equipment needed to perform the complicated reconstructive surgeries.
Before fleeing Vietnam, Dr. Sum received training as a plastic surgeon at the Barsky Unit in Cho Ray Hospital, Saigon. Founded in 1970 by the late American plastic surgeon Arthur J. Barsky II, this was the only plastic and reconstructive surgery unit for children in Vietnam during the war. Arriving in the US, Dr. Sum furthered his training at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York. Dr. Sum’s instinctive urge was to bring his professionalism and skills to ease the suffering of his people. Hence Project Hue was conceived, a tribute to Dr. Barsky whose life was dedicated to delivering reconstructive surgical care to the disadvantaged, and to educate others to do the same.
In 2007, Dr. Sum organized the first fact-finding trip and a seven-day surgery program with a volunteer team of three doctors. Working with the local hospitals, the team performed 28 operations, from hand reconstruction to micro-surgery to patients with problems from facial clefts to burn scar contraction. Despite the success of this first mission, with many more people waiting to receive treatment, Dr. Sum realized that training and imparting skills to local doctors would be critical to addressing the scale of the problem.
In March 2008, a second mission led by Dr. Sum and Dr. Lester Silver, chief of Mount Sinai Medical Center’s Plastic Surgery Division, along with a team of eight plastic surgeons arrived in Hue. Working with Hue Central Hospital, and with assistance from local Buddhist charitable organizations, the Red Cross, the Boy Scouts, and local healthcare institutions, more than 200 patients from poor families in remote areas with no means or access to medical services were identified. Forty-nine adults and 24 children received reconstructive surgery and 100 Vietnamese surgeons from across the country received training.
Project Hue’s medical missions have now become an annual event, with support from doctors in the US and other parts of the world. Each mission is fully packed with diagnosis, surgical, and training sessions, with doctors frequently working late into the night, driven by passion and compassion.
These missions have contributed significantly to the improvement of Hue Central Hospital and Hue College of Medicine Department of Plastic Surgery as the team imparts skills and knowledge to local doctors, and shares their expertise and new medical technologies in the field of reconstructive plastic surgery. Hue Central Hospital now has a comprehensive treatment program for those undergoing reconstructive and plastic surgery, including speech and language therapy for cleft patients, and special rehabilitative programs for those receiving reconstructive surgery for hands and upper extremities to restore maximal function so that they can return to a useful occupation. Psychosocial programs are also in place to help patients with disfigurements and disabilities adjust to their family and work environments.
Beyond this, Project Hue has opened the hearts and minds of many local and foreign partners, and inspired them to become partners in the healing of a nation that bears witness to one of mankind’s greatest tragedies. Encouraged by what he experienced during the 2016 mission, Dr. Philips Amoils of the Henry Mayo Newhall Hospital in the US said, “Having Dr. Tran give back so much to his people, and for us to be welcomed like celebrities in his city of birth, warmed our hearts. It made us realize how important this annual mission to Vietnam is to exchange information and knowledge as well as to build lasting friendships. One of the wishes is to return and expand on the interaction between Henry Mayo doctors and Hue Hospital that will involve many other specialties.”
In April 2015, on the 10th anniversary of the Trantien Foundation, Dr. Sum received the Medal for People’s Health from the Vietnam government in recognition of the contributions rendered by the Trantien Foundation in Hue. But it was neither accolade nor fame that motivated the Trantien family from the beginning. Their mission is simple—to bring joy and happiness and lessen the suffering of their fellow beings, especially those less privileged and marginalized. Their values are those handed down through the generations of the Trantien genealogy, the traditional Buddhist values of care, compassion, love, and gratitude!
Images courtesy of the author.
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