Physio Abroad: A Student in Vietnam

Elsevier Student Ambassador, Laura Mascitti, on placement in Vietnam

In January 2017, I ventured to Da Nang, a coastal city in central Vietnam with La Trobe University to volunteer as a physiotherapy student with GGC Volunteers. GGC Volunteers Ltd is an Australian registered charity that supports organisations and facilities in Vietnam, through sending volunteers and student groups to assist in improving the health, education and social welfare of children in the Da Nang region.

On my first day of volunteering, I was faced with the austerity of care provided in Vietnam. It was confronting to walk into a facility where some of the teenagers with disabilities were chained to their beds. The children with cerebral palsy would be lying flat on their backs on a play mat, lacking the strength to move around or sit up. Although it seemed foreign to me, a westerner, to see these children left lying on the floor, I came to learn that it is the norm for Vietnamese children to be laid and fed lying down when they are unwell.

“You cannot change what you refuse to confront” – John Spence

GGC provides a charity physiotherapy clinic for children with disabilities. One of the regular patients attending the clinic was an 18-year-old girl with diplegia. Throughout her passive stretching and exercises, she persisted through pain, even telling us to “push harder” indicating her diligence to see advancements. It was gratifying that she did not let her condition define her capabilities and came to each session with a willingness to improve. It compelled me to believe that a diagnosis or condition, acute or chronic, does not define a patient or bind them. The improvements that I witnessed in some of the children over 2 short weeks, verified that there is no limit to one’s ability to improve. As a physiotherapist, I will have the potential to make patients and their families believe it is possible to break boundaries.

“The limits of the possible can only be defined by going beyond them into the impossible” – Arthur C. Clarke

Correspondingly, the family members of attending children shared this commitment to improving health. The mother of a girl with Down Syndrome was always punctual, encouraging and an active participant in her daughter’s treatment, rather than watching from the sidelines. This mother would carry her daughter on the back of a motorbike, their only means of transport, to and from the clinic. This unwavering dedication struck me and reinforced that not only patients, but their families, can play a crucial role in optimising the health care experience.

During the experience, I become aware that poverty and the economy forces many Vietnamese families to orphan their healthy children, let alone children with disabilities, who increase their economic burden. I witnessed the mother of a severely disabled child abandoned at a support centre, return to take her child back into her care. The mother of the child with Down Syndrome, among others, reassured me that unwavering love and selflessness for children exists and goes beyond one’s poverty and/or disability status.

“Love conquers all” – Virgil

This experience enabled me to confront and conquer barriers, broaden my horizons, gain new perspectives, strengthen my cultural competency and most importantly, make a difference; albeit a small one. For these reasons among many more, I would recommend volunteering abroad (or even locally) to all of you.

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