April 23, 2009

Healing happens in many ways…

Posted in Between Us column, Diversity, Health at 3:49 am by dinaheng

Every year, Dr. Tri Dinh, an ob/gyn cancer specialist at Houston’s Methodist Hospital, journeys to Vietnam to help teach Vietnamese nurses and physicians how to treat women who might not receive such medical care otherwise. It is a volunteer journey he makes in memory of his father and to give back to the country he left behind.

Dinh was born in South Vietnam, where his father Dr. Tung Dinh was director of the only modern hospital in Da Nang. As the Vietnam War raged around them, Dinh’s father would treat nearly 200 injured people a day, performing surgery with an American surgical team that flew in to help in 1963. 

After working days at the hospital, Tung Dinh would go home, where he had set up a gynecology clinic on the ground floor of his house, and worked with his wife (a nurse) to treat indigent women who had nowhere else to go. 

Tri Dinh, who was 9 at the time, saw his father work with foreign governments and medical societies like the Swiss Red Cross, Maltheser of Germany and the United States Public Health Service to build a surgical ward, a pediatric unit, and other things as part of his dream for a post-war international hospital.

This month marks the 34th anniversary of the fall of Saigon, and while the war may be a distant memory to some, Tri Dinh vividly remembers his father sending his family to  Saigon, where one son was studying, in order to stay behind to care for his patients. 

“One brother and I left with our grandparents on a plane on March 26,” remembers Tri Dinh. “On the 27th, there were no more commercial planes, so my mother and 4-year-old sister left by running onto a troop transport. My father had helped so many people, including Americans, that we knew he was marked by the new regime.”

But with the help of a former patient, the doctor and three other fugitives slipped offshore at night onto a rickety barge. With bombs falling all around them, the three were finally rescued by an American military patrol, and taken to Saigon. After a journey to Guam, with nothing but the clothes on their back, the family was sent  to Camp Pendleton in San Diego with tens of thousands of other Vietnam refugees, then to Galveston, Texas.

Tung Dinh went back to residency training so that he could practice in the United States, while his wife worked as a waitress to feed the family. “I didn’t speak a word of English, and restarted third grade,” Tri Dinh says. “I got beat up on a regular basis because I was the Asian kid. My father rode to work on a bicycle because we had no car. We were on food stamps for nearly a year until my father started getting some income.”

Tung Dinh went on to become a professor at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston and his three sons become physicians as well. His daughter got her Ph.D. in public health. He encouraged his children to learn about their cultural roots and give back to their native country. It was Tri Dinh who took his father’s example to heart.

In 1999, Tri Dinh persuaded two colleagues to go with him to Da Nang, where they taught a continuing education module to Vietnamese doctors in the hospital where his father had been the director. It was the first time Tri Dinh had been back to Vietnam since he left at 9 years old. 

In 2003, Tung Dinh, a non-smoker, died of lung cancer. He had written several medical books, and the family used the money from those to start a fund that paid for Vietnamese physicians to go to Galveston for three months and rotate in with other UTMB medical residents for training. That program ended in 2006, and the money now pays for efforts to train Vietnamese doctors on how to treat cervical cancer in women.

Now, Tri Dinh goes to Vietnam every year to work with nurses and physicians in his father’s Da Nang hospital, persuading a physician colleague or two to also donate two weeks out of their practice and pay for their own trips.

“This last year, we screened 500 women for cervical cancer in four and a half clinic days, and then taught local providers how to do it with a low tech method,” Dinh says. “It’s part of the way I was brought up. There’s a strong understanding that there’s a duty and responsibility to give back. 

“Here in the United States, if I’m not here, there’s someone else to pick up the slack and help a patient. That’s not so in Vietnam. We were blessed to be able to come over here, go through a humble start, and finish college. Now it’s time to give back.”

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