Dr David Booth

A number of WA doctors are donating their own time and money to provide a medical component to free dental clinics in Vietnam seeing up to 1600 people a year. Drs Melanie Chen and Fraser Moss have made numerous trips to Vietnam with the Christian Health Aid Team (CHATS) and were packing their bags as this edition of Medical Forum went to press. Both Mel and Fraser are active recruiters and would encourage their GP colleagues to become involved.

“Each dental team has an accompanying doctor who goes along to both triage the kids attending the clinic and look after any health concerns of the team itself,” Mel said.

“I began in 2010 and I’ve probably done about nine trips to Vietnam. Some years I’ve done more than one and I’m now the secretary for CHATS and a keen spruiker on its behalf. It’s a very worthwhile endeavour and it makes you realise just how spoilt we are in Perth.”

“The clinics in these places are much noisier than anything we’re used to and often you’re working in a school-room with free-standing fans and some pretty basic toilet facilities.”

Dr Mel Chen (left)

“On occasion a CHATS doctor will have worked for another charity working in the region such as Burma or Cambodia. There’s quite a bit of movement between similar organisations.”

Perfect experience for GPs

“We do get a lot of younger, hospital-based doctors volunteering but I think older Perth GPs would love the experience. It’s certainly ruined travelling as a ‘tourist’ for me. I just couldn’t do that sort of travelling anymore.”

CHATS began in 2005 when now retired Oral and Maxillofacial surgeon Dr David Booth became aware that basic medical and dental services were not being provided to a vast majority of Vietnamese people, particularly children. Many of the latter live in Vietnam’s numerous orphanages.

“The children we treat are usually aged between six and early-teens from local schools or orphanages. In fact, we sometimes treat the monks who accompany the kids even though this project is not specifically designed to treat adults,” Mel said.

“Parents will often get their children all dressed up in nice clothes for their visit to the clinic but just as many are from very poor families with kids in dirty T-shirts. I listen to their chests before they go on to the dentist and I’ll always remember one little kid who quickly pulled his shirt back down. He was embarrassed because he only had a piece of string holding up his shorts.”

“There are a few things that have surprised me, in a positive sense, over there. I’ve seen kids who’ve had heart surgery and in one village I saw children with cochlear implants and hearing aids.”

“We were working in a hospital clinic and they had a laminated board recording the inoculation regime for the children. It was every bit as comprehensive as you’d see in Perth and the drugs came from Cuba, which was interesting.”

“These trips are a wonderful experience and I’d recommend them to everyone.”

Passport Stamp #3

Dr Fraser Moss will be sitting in a village somewhere in rural Vietnam as you read these words. This will be his third trip providing GP clinical support and triage prior to much needed dental treatment.

“The children are in remarkably good health with very few signs of disease, which is a real testimony to the public health system. Mind you, their teeth aren’t too good. There aren’t enough dentists in Vietnam but there are a lot of readily available sugary drinks.”

Dr Mel Chan

“I’ve been twice now and the last trip was based around Long Tan, which is quite close to Ho Chi Minh City. I had no idea of just what to expect but what I do know now is that we get through an enormous amount of work.”

“My nephew is a dentist, he introduced me to the CHATS program and I’m so glad he did. It’s such a worthwhile thing to do for a GP. It’s also something of an adventure, plus we don’t get many opportunities to work with colleagues in different professions, particularly dentists. We seem to function in a bit of a parallel universe, which is a shame.”

“And there’s also the added bonus of meeting Vietnamese doctors when we do a clinic in a hospital.”

A regular part of the workload is the setting up and dismantling of the clinic. It’s very much a ‘mobile’ operation and the working day begins with some heavy lifting.

“The entire operation, despite some complex logistics, is very well organised and highly efficient. Good teamwork is crucial because we’re picked up in a bus and transferred daily to a clinic where we usually stay for about one week.”

The travelling fixers

“There’s a team of about 16 people ranging from dentists, dental assistants, administrative staff and the all-important interpreter.”

“We unload the registration and triage work stations first of all so that we can get the registration process under way.”

“Every child has a number stamped on the back of their hand and that ensures full documentation throughout the whole process. While the autoclaves and suction hoses are being set up in the dental stations, we’ll triage the kids with an overview of their general health and have closer look at any ENT issues.”

“The next stop is anaesthesia, all the dental work is done pain-free thanks to a small jab with a needle. We have a team of young local people who both entertain and distract the kids by showing them how to clean their teeth and maintain good oral hygiene.”

“It can get pretty noisy and chaotic, often we’ll have hundreds of people milling around so the numbering system is absolutely vital.”

“Each child is given a pack of goodies with toothpaste and brush, plus a small teddy-bear.”

Despite the religious connection of ‘Christian Health’ in the CHATs title, Fraser underlines the fact that there is no proselytising whatsoever.

Dr Fraser Moss

“It’s completely non-denominational, even though a Christian ethic underpinned the original idea of CHATs. Any sort of religious component is just not part of the picture in any way. And, of course, you don’t have to be a paid-up church member to go on these trips.”

“I’d encourage every doctor to think about getting involved with CHATS. You get to see the real Vietnam and work with some really nice people. And the interaction with colleagues in Vietnam is an added bonus.”

ED: The next CHATS trips to Central and Southern Vietnam are July 14-21 and November 24 to December 1. www.chatinc.org.au

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