Second time around, the assignment was a documentary film about the Vietnam unit of Operation Smile, an international organization whose representatives, most of them volunteers, perform facial surgeries on children—“mainly cleft lips and cleft palates, a scourge in much of the developing world.”
The country to which Mr Donald returned after a 37-year interval “was a very different place.” While it is “still a nation of farmers,” Vietnam has experienced “an accelerating rate of industrial growth.” The two big cities still have open markets and colonial French architecture, but “the tree-lined boulevards are giving way to new banks and hotels…. There is also perhaps more traffic on the streets than anywhere else in the world: thousands upon thousands of motorbikes, scooters, pedicabs, cars and trucks….”
Vietnam also struck Mr Donald as “a very forgiving place. I never saw an angry person there, even in the maelstrom of Hanoi’s street traffic—a setting for road rage if there ever was one.” Although they have fought wars against the Chinese, the Japanese, the French, the Khmer Rouge Cambodians, the Americans and each other, today’s Vietnamese “are friends with all their old enemies.” They are models of “resilience, patience, and those family values that we invoke so often in the West.”
To cover the Vietnam operation of Operation Smile, Mr Donald and his wife Bodil drove to Hue, “the old Imperial City, with its ancient citadel and tombs,” where inin 1968 of the notorious battle called the Tet Offensive was fought. The occasion was the 25th birthday of OPSMILE. To celebrate it, volunteer surgeons, nurses and non-medical helpers in 25 countries performed, over two weeks, 4,000 surgeries—300 of them, under conditions that were sometimes dangerous, in Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City (“still popularly called Saigon”) and Hue.
The process of preparing the frightened Vietnamese children for surgery, Mr Donald recalled, “was ingenious. Nurses took the children and their mothers into a playroom where volunteers and then the children themselves would dress up as doctors and act out a mock surgery until everyone was laughing. Kathy Synders, an American speech therapist who must have also trained at the circus, dressed the children in surgical gowns, put masks on them, gave them toy instruments, and then lay down and played patient. They pounced on her shrieking and laughing. Tireless at putting on different faces until she found one that made the kids laugh, Kathy soothed the little patients until they were carried off with calm expressions to the OR.”
The surgery itself was “a masterpiece of relatively simple but transforming art: a series of cuts, pulling parts of the upper lip over and pulling parts down that had grown up behind the visible upper lip. There was almost no bleeding and the wound was closed in one straight vertical line on the newly restored upper lip.
“The operation took about an hour and sometimes less, but its effect was almost miraculous. The small child that had gone into the surgery with a mangled upper lip emerged whole and beautiful with no more than a tiny scar.” That “produced a wholesale change not only in the child’s appearance but also in the prospects for its life, and indeed for that of its family.”
The post-operative phase of Operation Smile, as witnessed by the Donalds, was “awkward.” “As children returned to parents who were waiting for them in hospital wards,” monsoon rains that had been falling steadily for six days began to swallow the landscape outside. The nearby Perfume River overflowed its banks, flooding the streets of Hue.
“At first it was fun watching people ride their heavily loaded motorbikes nonchalantly through rising water. Then the water got too deep for traffic.” At the hospital the young patients who had been released, and the parents who received them, could not leave.
“The wards quickly filled up and overflowed into the hallways. Surgeries had to be slowed, but the desire to continue was propelled by the two-week deadline and even more so by the imminent departures of visiting surgeons and nurses.”
Mixed into the crowd, moreover, were patients who had yet to have surgery. “The doctors worried about respiratory problems and dehydration produced by the crowding—potentially lethal for small children. The surgeries were halted.”
Before that, as surgeries were in progress, the lights went out. The hospital was not equipped with an emergency generator. Ongoing surgeries “had to be completed with flashlights.”
The Vietnam director of OPSMILE, Dr Nguyen Anh Thuan, “ransacked Hue for a standby generator.” He found one that was big enough and was available, “but no one could imagine how such a heavy piece of equipment could be delivered by truck through flooded streets.
“Then the rain paused. In the space of twelve hours the river caught up with the overflow and the streets began to drain.” The generator could be transported and people could move. “The rains came again and again, but always with a pause of several hours so that the water gradually drained away to the nearby South China Sea.”
After the Perfume River’s floodwaters receded and the roads were open, Jonathan and Bodil Donald followed one Operation Smile patient home with his mother and father. “Home was a tiny house and store run by the father’s parents in Hue,” Mr Donald recalled. “Inside, the furniture had been piled up, one piece on top of another, to escape the floodwaters. The grandfather showed us how high on the wall the water had come. Everyone was still wearing boots.”
The reception for little Ton That Nhat Binh “was joyous and marvelous to behold.” Aunts, uncles and neighbors gathered, waiting to inspect the little boy. “The grandparents’ smiles radiated on and on. With hands spread, the onlookers exclaimed ‘How good he looks!’”
Little Binh’s father “told us how they had feared for their son and now how much rosier the future looked. These were people with nothing except a frail shelter to live in, the clothes on their backs and a lifetime of work to look forward to. Yet they had no complaints…and were more grateful than many of us can imagine for the gift they had received.
“The miracle that a smile can achieve will never leave us. There are dozens of worthwhile medical missions around the world, but it would be hard to find any effort that, for the patients and for their families, are so redemptive.”
Have a great 'o8.