Current tunes: Ed Sheeran, “Tenerif Sea”
It has been an amazing year full of traveling opportunities, exploring new cultures, and making new friendships. But I gotta admit, after my trip to London this past spring I had what I’ll call a Miriam Mini Meltdown. These tend to happen when I start overanalyzing and trying to figure out who I am and what I am “supposed” to be doing with this human life. While I loved my time spent abroad this year, I was starting to feel a bit self absorbed and I really started to question why I loved travel. Did I really love adventure? Or had I been using it as a coping mechanism to get through feelings of discontentment as I watched my friends explore new cities, fall in love, and pursue higher education while I remained in this same location for 24 years? But after some self-reflection, prayer, and a couple coffee shop heart to hearts with my best pals, I came to find it was a combination of both. That is when I decided that my next trip had to be different. Mette had already asked me to join her in Vietnam after my New Zealand trip so I started my search for potential areas in need of my time and skills. Ironically enough, I came a cross a blog by a nurse that decided to leave her job after ten years in the ER and went in search for adventure. It was here in Vietnam that she discovered the Go Vap Orphanage in Ho Chi Minh City.
This orphanage houses about 240 children, many of which have been afflicted by physical and mental disabilities from congenital illnesses and deformities (some argue that the remnants of Agent Orange, a chemical used in warfare during the Vietnam War, is to blame). I was immediately intrigued and through some Google searching, I found that it is managed by the government but sponsored by Kids Without Borders (an American based organization) and the Vietnam Volunteer Network (a non-profit founded by an adopted orphan from Go Vap and is based out of London). Next thing I knew, I was filling out an application, updating my CV, and getting my background check clearance sent off.
Fast forward three months and here I am, sitting in the Go Vap employee/volunteer rest area. Unfortunately I am only able to volunteer for two weeks which I know is not ideal as volunteers are usually required to stay for a month or greater. Orphans often have attachment issues already so I was unsure if I should still volunteer or if they would even let me. But a few Skype interview sessions later, I was told that they would be happy to have me. And I was overjoyed to be accepted. Currently I have completed a little over a week of volunteering and I must say it has been a massive challenge but not quite in the ways I had expected. I really thought being around sick children would make me terribly depressed or uncomfortable. However, instead of being overcome with sadness, something inside me just switched on as I walked through the sick and terminally ill unit for the first time. It was like my internal nurse started buzzing and instead of feeling upset I became very focused on thinking of ways to make the children feel clean, comfortable, and just loved.
I found the most challenging part of this volunteer project was being proactive in a foreign environment as the only other English speakers in the facility are the other volunteers. And honestly you don’t run into many of them because this place is huge and many of us volunteer at different times or on different days of the week. I like to think of myself as a pretty driven person but I still struggled finding ways to be useful when I couldn’t just straight up ask what I could do or how to do it. But again, God was good and brought specific people into my life to help me adapt to this new area. The first is Jacqui, a fellow nurse from New Zealand who moved to Vietnam because of her husband’s career as a pilot. She is probably one the most cheerful and kind hearted people I have ever met. Other than volunteering at Go Vap on the weekends, she teaches English to nurses in a local hospital and has also started teaching English to the employees of her apartment complex right out of her living room (and for free!). She came to the orphanage on a Saturday to get me oriented and really just made me feel welcome.
The other volunteer I owe a lot of gratitude to is Gene, a retired American physical therapist that also now lives in Vietnam. He has taught me a lot about different physiotherapy techniques for helping the children from the physically disabled ward walk and exercise. He also has just been a really amazing resource as I have slowly been adapting to daily living in Vietnam. For example, he taught me how to use the local bus system which costs 25 cents a ride versus the $14 round trip taxi that I need to get from District 1 to the Go Vap District every day. Gene also works at the university across the street from the orphanage (side note: I have to walk through campus every morning and afternoon to reach the bus stop and I don’t think I have ever been stared at more in my entire life. I literally feel like a three headed alien or something. A really giant one, too, because I think I am twice the size of all the students…male and female).
While there are many different units on site, the three that I have spent the majority of my time in are the toddler ward (video below), the physically disabled/neurologically impaired ward, and the sick and terminal ward.
I have had the pleasure of working with so many different ages and types of children at this orphanage but there a few munchkins that are really starting to steal parts of my heart. The first is Chau, a two and half year old girl with some developmental delays and what I think is a form of cerebral palsy (honestly I don’t even know the diagnoses of most of the children because I don’t have access to their charts and the caregivers don’t speak English). Apparently, last year she had no head/neck stability and was unable to walk.But now after working with Gene and other therapists, Chau can walk with assistance and hold her neck up on her own but requires some support while sitting up. She is adorable and I’ve even learned to count to ten in Vietnamese by practicing with her.
Next is Lam, a three year old boy who also has cerebral palsy. He is a scrawny little thing but has the most contagious smile. Gene taught me how to use the parallel bars for his walking exercises so we spend most of our time together sweating through the humidity and walking up and down the hallway. I often have to coerce him into walking with little bottle cap shots of Fanta but it gets him going nonetheless. I always thought I wanted only girls when I have my own kids but hanging with Lam is starting to make me think otherwise (and I am talkin’ like eight years from now people, no babies any time soon…nope, nope, nope).
Houng is a five year old ball of sunshine that had taken me over even before I left the USA. I had seen her picture on their Facebook page and her laugh turned out to be even brighter than I had imagined. Houng has schizencephaly, which means she was born with half a brain lobe. Because infants with this condition are prone to developing hydrocephalus (excess fluid buildup in the brain…I’ll explain this further down), a French Medical NGO did a shunt placement surgery (essentially they put in what we nurses call a brain drain) last year. Fortunately, Houng recovered quickly and has been a healthy, loving, and very sassy little girl ever since. She is also very bright and always curious, wanting to play, learn, and touch everything. She does have problems with her legs and requires braces and a cane to ambulate but it’s been fun encouraging her to get up and walk instead of resorting to crawling around on all fours.
The sick and terminally ward that I have been going to is unlike anything I have ever seen. Many of the kiddos have life threatening illnesses with the most common being hydrocephalus. Okay I am going to go all Magic School Bus on you and do quick little biology lesson just like Ms. Frizzle because I could not believe how many hydrocephalus children were in the orphanage and I want to give you an idea of what/how that looks. In layman’s terms, hydrocephalus is often referred to as “water in the brain” but really it’s excess cerebrospinal fluid or CSF. CSF has many functions but it basically coats and protects your brain and spinal cord as well as providing nutrients to nerve and brain tissue. Your body normally regulates the amount in your cranium according to your body’s needs but sometimes, through illness/infection or neonatal malformations, the process of absorbing and secreting CSF is impaired. Because baby skull bones are not completely formed and fused, excess fluid causes extensive swelling of the head and in turn, damages brain tissue and often leads to permanent brain damage. I didn’t feel comfortable taking/posting photos of these children so I just pulled some photos from the Vietnam Volunteer Network’s FB pages to give you an idea. With these kiddos I mostly change diapers, stroke
them, and sing to them since it can be difficult and sometimes dangerous to pick them up if you haven’t been trained properly.
I think the hardest part of it all is trying to understand why I am who I am and why I was not chosen to be the one in their position. I understand that if we had all the answers we wouldn’t need to rely and trust in God, but I still struggle with comprehending the pain and loneliness these children are going through at no fault of their own. But I know these are human thoughts trying to understand a non-human, all powerful, and sovereign God that loves these children the same way that he loves me. So instead I’ll continue to thank Him for all I have and who He created me to be and more importantly will pray for a heart that fully serves and trusts Him instead of focusing on the all the “why’s” that may never be answered.
While this was a heavier and more lengthy post, I hope it may inspire some to look for ways to serve in their community or abroad and help any one who is struggling with a heart of contentment like I was before coming to Vietnam.
Cheers and keep on wishin’,