Thanh Nien News | Health | Plastic surgeon’s 40-year legacy lives on
The present-day National Hospital of Odonto-Stomatology in HCMC was formerly known as the Center for Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery.
Emily Barksy saw tears in the eyes of one of the nurses who met her and her father when they visited Ho Chi Minh City-based National Hospital of Odonto-Stomatology (NHO) 10 days ago.
“They used to work with my grandfather,” she said. Much has changed at the hospital since her grandfather, the late American plastic surgeon, Arthur J. Barsky II, founded it 39 years ago during the Vietnam War.
What was known as the “Barsky Unit” – the only plastic and reconstructive surgery unit for children in Vietnam during the 1970s – has grown into a leading hospital in its field.
“We now treat both adults and children and are the center [of treatment, research and training] for 32 provinces and cities in the south,” NHO’s general planning director Le Trung Chanh said.
For the American doctors at the Barsky Unit who were flown out of Vietnam when the war ended, it would be good to know that locals had picked up where they left off.
“Given their hasty departure, the American physicians feared their efforts to create a sustainable clinic might have failed,” said Emily, a first year student at Harvard Medical School who has written a research project about her grandfather’s work in Vietnam.
Barsky’s efforts began as a result of a series of articles published in the Manchester Guardian about victims of the Vietnam War in the late 1960s.
An American lawyer, Tom Miller, was so moved by these stories that he asked Barsky to come to Vietnam with him to see what they could do, especially for the child war casualties.
Barsky was then a famous plastic surgeon in New York and had been the chief surgeon for the Hiroshima Maidens Project which provided surgery for young Japanese women burned by the atomic bomb during World War II.
Emily said as much as 60 percent of the war casualties in Vietnam were children.
“Practically, all the children’s suffering was war related ” not just direct injuries from gunfire, shrapnel and napalm, but problems such as noma, a disease which eats away a child’s face in a matter of hours and was last seen in Nazi concentration camps,” Miller recalled.
In 1969, Miller and Barsky started the Center for Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery, the “Barsky Unit.”
The center’s mission was twofold: to treat the child victims of the war, and train Vietnamese staff.
From its opening until the American doctors left in 1975, the center, with 54 beds and three operating rooms, treated around 1,200 children.
One of these was Phan Thi Kim Phuc, whose world famous photo of her running naked down a road with her back burned by napalm, shocked the world and won photographer Nick Ut a Pulitzer Prize.
The center, funded mostly by the US Agency for International Development (AID), treated the children free of charge.
The center itself is admired for its apolitical mission by those who know it.
Chanh said humanitarian work is still a big part of the hospital today.
Once or twice every year, it sends doctors to give free training and dental treatment in rural and remote areas, and neighboring countries like Laos and Cambodia.
With the same three operating rooms from its early years, the hospital conducts 45 to 50 surgeries a day and many of them are free as they are paid for by the government.
But the demand is so great that NHO is building three more operating rooms.
A new 11-story building will soon be built on the site of the old Barsky Unit.
NHO’s director Lam Hoai Phuong told Emily she felt saddened to tear down the place and would find some way to honor Barksy’s memory.
Some of the equipment used in Barsky’s time like lights, operating beds, signs and plaques and patients” record card holders was still in good shape today.
And the veteran nurses still talk about the “Barsky techniques” which they are passing down to younger ones.
Chanh said only in recent years has NHO started to return to its American founder’s philosophy: to “give back a completely healed person to society.”
“For many years, we didn”t pay much attention to restoring functions [for damaged facial parts] but focused on giving patients normal looks,” Chanh said.
NHO now has a comprehensive care center which provides post-operation services such as speech therapy for children with cleft lips and cleft palates.
As for the present state of plastic and reconstructive surgery in Vietnam, Chanh said things have improved a lot with time.
When Barksy started his project, no plastic surgery unit existed in the country.
Today, in HCMC, there is one Odonto-Stomatology doctor for every 15,000 people.
“We can say Vietnam’s plastic and reconstructive surgery is almost catching up with the world’s,” Chanh said.
“What Vietnamese doctors can’t do, we invite foreign ones to come and do.”
Reported by Thuy Linh
Story from Thanh Nien News
Published: 04 August, 2008, 11:06:30 (GMT+7)
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