By Jacqueline Mitchell
Yen Tran, D13, returns to her native Vietnam on a medical mission
Yen Tran, D13, and her sister had terrible teeth as little girls growing up in Vietnam. Born in Dam Sen, about 10 miles outside of Ho Chi Minh City, the sisters’ blackened, decaying baby teeth were the norm for most kids in a country where toothpaste costs the equivalent of one U.S. dollar, and people live on $5 to $10 a day.
This past summer, Tran returned to Vietnam, a country she hadn’t seen since she and her family moved to the United States when she was seven. As a volunteer with the medical missionary group Project Vietnam, Tran spent most of July and August traveling through central and southern Vietnam with two dentists, three physicians and about 50 U.S. students to provide medical and dental care in rural villages outside of Hue, Da Nang and Hoi An.
Hundreds of people lined up each day, waiting as long as eight hours for care. Tran did oral screenings on 200 to 300 children each day before sending them on to the dentists for fillings and extractions. With only limited resources, the team had to prioritize treating children ages six and older whose adult teeth were coming in. It’s a better investment to identify early cavities and treat the permanent teeth, says Tran.
“In Vietnam, there’s no point in fixing [baby teeth],” she says. “It was heartbreaking to say, ‘I can’t treat you.’ ”
With little more than a table, a chair and a fan at her station, Tran mainly relied on visual screenings to assess the children’s oral health. The decay was all too evident. “One hundred percent of them suffered from baby bottle syndrome,” the severe decay caused by long exposure to sugary drinks, says Tran. Many Vietnamese parents let their babies fall asleep at night sucking on a bottle, and few people brush their teeth or even own a toothbrush.
Every child left with a toothbrush and toothpaste, which Tran and the other volunteers had received as donations. Tran, who is fluent in Vietnamese, says she also tried to educate parents about the importance of oral health, sometimes giving them an up-close view of their children’s broken teeth or exposed roots to drive the message home.
The Project Vietnam dental team—many of whom are second-generation Vietnamese Americans—also worked with Vietnamese nursing students, who plan to continue educating the villagers about the importance of good oral hygiene.
When the donated toothpaste runs out, Tran says she hopes the children will take her advice to swish with salt water and clean their teeth with a rag. Instilling even these rudimentary oral hygiene habits would constitute progress in these rural regions, says Tran, although she guesses that only 10 to 20 percent of the patients will actually stick with her recommendations.
Making Family Connections
Once she graduates from dental school and goes into practice, Tran says she plans volunteer for future dental missions to Vietnam. She regrets that she won’t be able to follow up with the patients she saw this summer. Those with extreme decay were prescribed antibiotics, and “I couldn’t be there to see if they improved or not,” she says.
“When I was young, I had the same problem,” Tran says of her badly decayed baby teeth. “My relatives were surprised that we have such healthy adult teeth now. I’m pretty lucky to be in America.”
During the Vietnam War, Tran’s father sympathized with the Americans, a choice that came with dire consequences. After the fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975, hundreds of thousands of South Vietnamese men, including Tran’s father, were rounded up in reeducation camps. After he was released, he decided to move his immediate family to the United States.
Most of Tran’s extended family remained in Vietnam, and she was able to reconnect with them this summer. “Their hospitality during my visit really touched my heart,” she says.
Though she had only vague memories of her childhood in Vietnam, her uncle gave her a tour of the family home in Dam Sen, a city that is now a tourist destination, with a water park, roller coaster, bird garden and floating restaurant, among other attractions. “Returning to Vietnam was one of the most amazing experiences I have had,” says Tran. “This experience is imprinted in my heart forever.”
Jacqueline Mitchell can be reached at email@example.com.