Vietnam Friendship Village, Hanoi. A learning and medical center for children and adults with disabilities as a result of Dioxin poisoning, a chemical used by the American armed forces during the war in Viet Nam. "Operation Ranch Hand" distributed the chemical/herbicide, also known as "Agent Orange", over the jungles of South Viet Nam in hopes that it would defoliate the vegetation and expose the locations of their enemy. Several generations later and the effects of the chemical are still prevalent, the VFV provides housing and education for children that come from all over the country with many different disabilities.
I spent a couple of weeks at the village through two visits. My first visit was an incredible experience; fun, exciting and enjoyable. A lot of my time was spent playing with the kids. I would be reminded of what a struggle it is for these kids and their families. The standard of care and supervision was far from the "developed" world but the kids really governed themselves a lot of the time. If a fight broke out or someone was hurt a fellow student was there first. On one particular occasion a potentially serious accident occurred and my eyes were open towards the drastic differences between the society I grew up in and the one these kids live in. I was put into a situation that showed me more than what was on the surface and the challenges that an organization like this has to deal with when it is primarily funded by donation from the outside, "developed" world.
During one of our night-time games of soccer when the courtyard is illuminated by the fluorescence of stadium-esque lighting a wave of the kids huddled in a crowd at the entrance of a residence hall. At the center of this crowd was 21 year-old Nu, a student that I had heard about but hadn't met. The reason Nu was at the center of the crowd and the reason I hadn't met her are one and the same. Nu's disabilities are far more challenging then the other students and it requires her to spend most of here time alone with a full-time caretaker separate from the other students. Nu is blind and deaf, leaving her without a way to communicate. She does not leave the residence hall unless guided by a student or volunteer. Nu's appearance is that of a 12 or 13 year-old not her true age of 21. While her caretaker stepped away for a moment Nu managed to feel her way out of her room on the second floor of the residence hall and climbed over a railing, she stepped out as if to feel for the floor and felt nothing. She fell to the ground, unconscious and bleeding. At this moment I ran over to the mass of students and found one of the older kids trying to carry her, his own disabilities kept him from managing her unconscious body so he handed her to me. Not knowing what had happen or where to go, no staff member was in sight, the kids directed me to the medical center.
Walking down the hall with hope that a doctor or nurse would be in the building to help stabilize Nu, 15 kids running around me screaming and pulled me into a room with a bed. No one was there except a young physical therapist's apprentice. Another volunteer, Jenni Nguyen, a Vietnamese American translated to me what had happened and began to call the director of the village and an ambulance. After what seemed like 15-20 minutes the ambulance arrived but still no staff or caretaker. The ambulance arrived but void of a paramedic, basically a taxi service. I tried my best to instruct the students on how we needed to move Nu, falling from such a height was high risk for spinal injuries. I pulled some of the older stronger students to the bedside and laid their arms across Nu and motioned them to slide them beneath her, they followed my instruction while I kept Nu's head stable. But as soon as we lifted her they began to let go, one by one. Nu's lower half fell to the floor. Nu and I were left alone, I did my best to carry her to the van.
Sitting in the back of the ambulance watching the street lights illuminate the empty shelves where in a wealthier society every tool imaginable for any type of medical emergency would sit sterilized and individually wrapped in plastic. This is a place I hope to never be again, sitting comparing my life to someone else's, comparing what I have to what someone doesn't. A girl, who at the time was only two years younger then me was slowly waking up unaware of where she is, who she was with and not knowing what happened. At the end of the Ambulance ride, members of the VFV's staff were waiting at the hospital. Nu was fully conscious and fighting to stand up. She spent several days at the hospital.
I returned to the village after the student's winter break to visit with Nu, she came away from the incident with hardly a bruise or scrape. I spent an afternoon with her walking around the courtyard, stopping whenever she did and watched the way she sat; legs crossed, rocking her whole body back and forth.