Megan Heflinger '23 working in the lab.

CCPA Summer Series 2022: International Volunteer HQ

By Megan Heflinger ’23

Funding Source: CCPA’s Deborah Lafer-Scher Internship

My name is Megan Heflinger ’23 (she/her) and this summer, I participated in a 6-week medical volunteering program in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam! I volunteered in an orthopedic and rehabilitation hospital (Bệnh Viện 1A), getting hands-on experience with wound care, physical therapy, occupational therapy, acupuncture, medicine administration, autism therapy, and cerebral palsy care.

As a Vietnamese person, I saw firsthand with my own family how culture and lived experiences can affect how one views and interacts with the healthcare system. I wanted to further my understanding of Vietnamese culture to help me become a more empathetic and understanding future healthcare provider while engaging with minority communities.

I knew Vietnamese culture had a massive emphasis on family, but this experience showed me just how interwoven family is into healthcare in Vietnam. At Bệnh Viện 1A, eight to ten patients are packed into a room, with beds just 3 feet apart. However, the rooms are typically crammed with twenty to thirty people, as each patient is accompanied by a few family members. At night, straw mats cover the floor, with families keeping their loved ones company overnight. Compared to the United States, family members are more integrated into patient care in Vietnam. 

Family members keep hold of all IV medications and are responsible for notifying healthcare personnel when an IV drip is almost over. They are also accountable for cleaning, getting food, helping patients get around, and any other daily needs. When patients need to be moved or positioned for exams or procedures, the family is doing so. Healthcare workers often do not view a chart before meeting or talking to a patient; they ask the family member the name of the patient, what happened to them, what procedures they have undergone, the last time their wound was cleaned, when they got their stitches in, etc. Additionally, family members are always present for (and occasionally assist with) physical and occupational therapy. It was normal for children at the hospital to do physical and occupational therapy with their siblings. Their siblings were not patients and did not need the therapy but having them there for support improved the patients’ recovery. The only place where I recall a family member not being present for treatment at Bệnh Viện 1A was in the operating room. 

In addition, patients receive support from the family of other patients in the room. When a doctor enters a room and asks if person “X” is in the room, at least half the room will reply. If a direct family member does not remember when the stitches were put in, the neighboring patient’s family member will remind them. If a patient is screaming in pain while their wound is cleaned asking for their mom, but their mom is not present, another patient’s mom will hold their hand. 

Once during my volunteering, I was working with a stroke patient to practice physical therapy in his bed. He was struggling immensely, insisting that he couldn’t do the exercise. Others around the room and even strangers from the hallways began to gather by his bed, cheering him on. Some even videotaped him, saying soon, he will be able to do this exercise easily and this video will remind him of how far he came in his recovery. He ended up doing the exercise multiple times. Another stroke patient who was unable to walk without support on my first day wanted to walk so he could get married. When practicing walking around the ward, he began to meet patients and people in other rooms; he had the entire ward rooting for his recovery. On my last day, he went home. He walked at his wedding four days later.

In the United States, 20+ people crowded into a tiny room without AC may be viewed negatively as an uncomfortable environment hindering patient recovery. But in Vietnam, this is not only normal but also ultimately creates a powerful support system. These healthcare norms are founded in Vietnamese culture and help patients recover, giving them support and hope they may not have otherwise. Something that may seem unconventional, different, or even inadequate in one culture may not be that way in another. This experience made me rethink what “normal” and “standard” really mean in a healthcare setting, and I am certain what I learned will influence the healthcare provider I ultimately become. I am so incredibly grateful for the Deborah Lafer-Scher Internship and the CCPA for making this possible!