TAY NINH — Bright-eyed parents and children, some without shoes, were eager to begin the day on a Saturday in mid June. As early as 6AM, dozens of Tay Ninh residents populated their provincial orphanage decorated with assorted heart-shaped balloons and equipped with three doctors.
Each family entered a line to receive a check up from the doctors of Hoan My Hospital during VinaCapital Foundation’s 139th outreach clinic held in Tay Ninh, one of the poorest provinces of Vietnam. All of the clinic’s expenses were funded by a generous sponsorship from FedEx Vietnam.
“It’s always a great personal satisfaction, appreciation, and gratitude to have an opportunity to see the happy faces of the children who were examined by the doctors here,” said Mr. Binh Nguyen FedEx Senior Country Manager of Indochina and Chief Representative of Vietnam, who greeted children during the clinic. “It touches my heart,” he said.
In an effort to meet the Vietnam Ministry of Health’s five-year plan, VinaCapital Foundation has chosen to concentrate this year’s outreach clinic initiative on the region of South Vietnam. Tay Ninh, a province connecting south Vietnam to Phnom Penh, Cambodia, has a population of nearly 1,090 where 85 percent of the population is defined as rural, or far from the urban city center.
Nearly seventy children were seen by the doctors during our day long clinic on June 14th and fourteen children, nine of whom are under six years old, were diagnosed with a congenital heart defect and were told they must receive a heart procedure or open-heart surgery. Last Saturday brought an even larger turnout with 390 children checked during a VCF clinic in the south central highlands province of Dak Lak, and 62 children diagnosed with a congenital heart defect.
FedEx, a long-time donor to VCF was brought to Vietnam in 1994 and currently operates in over 220 countries. The company has engaged in funding a number of social impact programs including sponsoring the ORBIS “Flying Eye Hospital” to conduct eye surgeries for children from central Vietnam, and the “Safe Kids Walk This Way” campaign to help children in Vietnam walk safely to school.
During the clinic, Mr. Nguyen noted that there are so many children with heart defects in need of help and a check-up. “This is such a poor community,” he told VCF staff. Government officials have recently signed a contract to establish a clean water system within two areas of the Tay Ninh province, a project worth over $1 M. Mr. Nguyen pointed out that organizations must work together to “do the right things to help,” he said later adding that the commitment of VCF staff complements the common goal of FedEx to help those who need it.
“There are so many programs and each meets certain needs. We selected VCF because we wanted to help improve the lives of children with heart disease,” he said.
Since 2007, VCF has partnered with 18 hospitals to conduct 139 outreach clinics throughout Vietnam in which certified doctors have provide free check-ups, post-operation check-ups, ultrasounds, and medical diagnosis to over 31,000 children from rural provinces, remote from the city centers — all with the goal of identifying children suffering from congenital heart disease who cannot afford the cost of an open-heart surgery or intervention, even with help from insurance and the assistance of provincial authorities.
As of today, over 6,380 children have been found with congenital heart defects during our clinics and 4,876 have been referred for a heart procedure.
Nguyen Anh Tuan, VCF’s Program Manager of Capacity and Outreach Programs, was charged with organizing the day’s clinic and noted that, “When planning for a successful outreach to a rural province, it is imperative to work with local provincial authorities, doctors, and local community associations to spread the word to poor families because now they have a chance to test their child for congenital heart disease and we have an opportunity to facilitate the funding if their child needs a heart surgery.”
Dr. The Viet Pham, the head of cardiovascular surgery at Hoan My Hospital in Phu Nuan, Ho Chi Minh City, told VCF in an interview that this was the third time he visited the Tay Ninh province to provide free medical services but that this was the first time he worked with VinaCapital Foundation.
At Hoan My Hospital, Dr. Pham said he works on about three thousand congenital heart disease cases each year. He noted that the prevalence of such cases in Vietnam (approximately 20,000 children born each year with congenital heart disease) often makes him wonder what the underlying reasons are perpetuating the disease.
According to a report titled “A Birth Prevalence of Congenital Heart Disease Worldwide: A Systematic Review and Meta Analysis” published in 2011 in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology by the Erasmus Medical Center, 1.35 million babies are born with a congenital heart defect each year with Asia reporting the highest congenital heart defect birth rate, 9.3 per 1,000 live births.
Dr. Pham noted that the lack of quality pre-natal care in many poor provinces and the lack of its perceived importance on contributing to a successful birth, plays a major role in whether the baby is even diagnosed with a congenital heart defect.
“I think the reason why we have many congenital heart disease cases is because the women in the provinces do not understand what to do before pregnancy,” he said pointing out pregnant women must receive a rubella shot as well as an ultrasound and echocardiogram to find a congenital heart defect in their baby.
He pointed out in many circumstances, poor women in rural provinces do not have time or money to make a trip to their city center to receive quality pre-natal care and the provincial hospital simply does not have the equipment conducive for the exams.
“In Tay Ninh for example there are not many doctors and not many echocardiography machines,” he said adding, “Many of these pregnant women do not have money to go to the big city to diagnose the disease.” There are currently twelve hospitals in the province of Tay Ninh, while there are fifty hospitals in Ho Chi Minh City with nearly 7,800 doctors, using statistics provided by the General Statistics Office of Vietnam.
In U.S. women are typically told if their baby has a congenital heart defect in the 22nd week of pregnancy. In many Ho Chi Minh City hospitals women are notified in their 22nd to 24th week of pregnancy. Upon birth, babies with a congenital heart disease often appear with blue, purplish skin due to cyanosis, or a lack of oxygen traveling from their heart to lungs.
Though Dr. Pham also explained he notices even when a baby is diagnosed with a congenital heart disease, the family either does not understand the seriousness of the diagnosis or is afraid of the costs of the pricey surgery.
In Vietnam, insurance typically covers 30 to 40 percent of the costs of an open-heart surgery for a child above the age of six years given that the government certifies the family as poor, leaving the rest of the surgery either supported through the funds of the provincial government, a sponsor, a non-profit organization, or rested on the shoulders of the family.
The sentiment of helping the poor families who lined up for a check-up on Saturday, especially the families of the 14 children diagnosed with congenital heart disease, motivated many VCF staff members including Nguyen Thi Thanh Hue, Program Manager of Heartbeat Vietnam.
“I just want to help them as much as possible,” she said mentioning that many of the families woke up at 6AM, way before the clinic started, to make sure they were in time to receive a check-up from the doctors.
The day reminded her of a responsibility, which consistently keeps her on her toes at VinaCapital Foundation. “Work with your heart and remember our children and our people,” she said.
Text and Photos By: Kamelia Kilawan