Student Group Will Travel to Vietnam to Provide Basic Health Care, Promote Education

Steven Pham and Nancy Vo will travel to Vietnam in September with Medical, Educational Missions and Outreach to provide medical assistance to Vietnamese children. Photo: Dana Wall/Daily Bruin.

UCLA's Medical, Educational Missions and Outreach counterpart was established this past winter quarter to recruit UCLA students to join a UC-Irvine outreach mission.

By Sandy Bui for The Daily Bruin

Pierced in Steven Pham's mind is the surreal sight of a physically disabled caretaker who drags herself around with her hands.

The woman, in spite of her disability, cares for a two-week-old Vietnamese orphan who was abandoned by impoverished parents who couldn't feed him. Dressed in girls' clothing, the infant boy and his circumstances enveloped Pham with anguish.

"You look at this child ­– he was sleeping, this woman next to him. You think, that's going to be his family, that's what he's going to know," said Pham, a second-year biochemistry student who traveled to Vietnam for the first time last summer with a medical outreach student group.

Pham, a pre-medical student, has already acknowledged that American medical professionals can only do so much to heal the grief of a desperate Vietnam.

But the thought of Vietnamese orphans who are unable to reach their full potential continues to kindle Pham's passion to serve the health care needs of his homeland, he said.

"You see there's something in their eyes," Pham said. "There's so much they've seen that you will never see."

Going with UC Irvine's Medical, Educational Missions and Outreach student group, Pham visited Vietnam to provide health care and promote education in poor villages. As the only non-UC Irvine student volunteer, Pham said he was inspired to found a sister group at UCLA to expand the group's mission.

UCLA's Medical, Educational Missions and Outreach counterpart was established this past winter quarter to recruit UCLA students to join in the outreach mission, Pham, the group's president, said. The outreach group was originally founded at UC Irvine in 2007 by the children of Dr. Duy Nguyen, a Fountain Valley vascular surgeon who created the nonprofit organization Medical Education Outreach Incorporated.

Despite the UCLA group's infancy, 13 UCLA students will travel to Vietnam this September with various medical professionals and 25 UC Irvine students for Medical, Educational Missions and Outreach's fourth annual trip to Vietnam.

In addition to funding orphanages and providing Vietnamese children with school supplies, the group's medical professionals and students will hold free clinics to tend to basic health care needs, present impoverished children with academic scholarships, and perform life-saving surgeries on children with heart problems, Pham said.

The trip will last two weeks and allow students to perform triage, measure villagers' blood pressure and glucose levels, and help distribute basic health care. Students will also have the chance to watch American doctors perform heart surgeries and even help to extract patients' rotten teeth under the guidance of dentists.

"Over there, you just dig in," said Nancy Vo, a third-year psychobiology student and vice president of the UCLA group. "There're fewer rules, and it's more open. You can do more, so it's more hands-on experience."

In the two-week span last year, doctors and students treated almost 2,000 patients in central Vietnam.

UCLA has already raised nearly $10,000, which will be used to fund heart transplants and to provide children with money and supplies to attend school.

The education of Vietnamese medical residents is also a priority. Nguyen went on his first medical mission to Vietnam about seven years ago to teach medical residents to perform surgeries and to operate American medical equipment. Nguyen's altruism stems from his esteem for education and knowledge, both of which he said are taken for granted in the U.S.

"The knowledge over here is not available in Third World countries. Knowledge is really much more than money," Nguyen said. "(Knowledge) stays with you for life. It's wonderful to see different countries and what being poor means."

Echoing Nguyen's sentiments, Dr. Quang Vo, an Orange County cardiovascular surgeon who will go with the group to southern Vietnam and perform surgeries, said the experience will be an invaluable journey for students.

"We do think of L.A. as the world, but there are far reaches of the world where things are drastically different, and I think it makes you better here if you can understand that," Vo said.

But Vo added that poverty also exists as close as East L.A.

"If the students can see that, they not only can do things in Asia, but wherever they are," Vo added.

Though the group's vast goals feel overwhelming at times, Pham said he welcomes the opportunity to see his culture and his parents' home country firsthand.

"The thing that actually made me feel more like a pre-med was the orphanages and the scholarships because that helped me connect a lot more to ... the orphans, to spend a whole day with them," Pham said. "It really made me think about how much I wanted to help my people."

For more information about Medical, Educational Missions and Outreach at UCLA, visit

Published: Monday, June 07, 2010