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Medicine & Healthcare, Occupational Therapy in Vietnam by Riley Thomas

During my stay in Vietnam, I was placed in two separate villages. The first was Thuy An Rehabilitation Centre where I spent eight of my ten weeks. This centre is located in Ba Vi, Hanoi, which is approximately 2.5 hours via bus from where I stayed during the weekends (Ba Dinh, Hanoi).

There are approximately 200 children that come to this village, many of whom live for years at a time. The children that come here have a wide range of disorders, which include developmental delays, Cerebral Palsy, Autism, limb deformities, and deafness. During my stay in this village, I primarily worked in the Life Skills classroom, though I spent some time in the Fine Motor and Gross Motor room as well. Life inside of the village was incredible!

Volunteering abroad

I have never felt what it is like to be famous until I came here. All of the children love working and interacting with the volunteers that stay here and several of them would even wait outside of our door for us to get up in the morning. Activities in the Life Skills classroom included colouring, yoga, playing games, puzzles, origami, and teaching kids to do basic hygiene. As a volunteer, we pretty much had free reign to try new techniques with the children. The teachers greatly appreciate anything that you bring from your home country.

One project in particular that I worked on was hygiene for the children. When I first arrived, there were around 60 children coming to the Life Skills room who would share the same cup whenever they brushed their teeth. Also, brushing teeth was a new task that many had rarely, if ever, done before. I spent time on a daily basis teaching the children how to properly brush their teeth, as well as getting in the routine of washing their hands with soap. With the help of funding from Projects Abroad, we were able to buy cups and tooth brushes for each child coming into the classroom. I helped to create a place where each child had their picture by their own toothbrush and cup.

Volunteering in Vietnam

Volunteers typically work from 8 to 10 in the morning, and 2 to 4 in the afternoon. When morning and afternoon class were over, I would usually go to the feeding area to help the staff feed the children. Following lunch, we would usually have time to take a nap (highly recommended). At night, the children are usually out playing games and running around with each other. I would usually go out and play soccer or badminton with them, and I also brought a football (American) from home (many of the children were astounded at the shape, having never seen one before). We were also provided lunch and dinner at our accommodation. This was quite an authentic experience, as there were always at least three, and sometimes seven or eight, dishes cooked by one of the local staff in the village. I never was hungry during my stay in this village.

Although I was able to get by independently with the small amount of Vietnamese I picked up, Projects Abroad did an excellent job of providing translators to live and work with the volunteers. These translators also played a dual role through sharing their culture with the volunteers that stayed in the village. There is no better way to learn about a country than through its own citizens first hand, and finding locals who speak fluent English was more challenging than I anticipated.

Accommodation in Vietnam

My placement in Vietnam

The accommodation for this placement was actually much better than what I was expecting. Volunteers sleep in two air-conditioned rooms that are divided by an incomplete wall, and there are four beds with blankets and mosquito nets in each room. There are also two bathrooms with overhead showers, as well as a washing machine, a fridge, and a pot to boil water. During my stay, I was very lucky to have incredibly helpful and awesome volunteers that I worked with.

Coming to this village has been one of the most remarkable experiences I have ever had in my life for a number of reasons. The first reason is the slow-paced lifestyle that is characteristic of Vietnamese society (or at least village life). I have not had as much free time in years, and having this time provided for a peaceful get away from my busy life at home. During my stay, I was able to finish six books, learned how to knit, went for a run on most days, and even picked up some Vietnamese. My second reason comes from a story that I would consider inspirational for anyone trying to become a therapist. There was one boy in particular that I spent an extensive amount of time working with throughout my eight-week stay. He had Cerebral Palsy, and his condition had manifested itself through very poor manual dexterity. Anything requiring the use of his hands was a significant challenge for him.

For several days, this boy indicated to me that he wanted to learn how to make an origami crane, so I took the initiative and I learned how to make one from a Japanese volunteer also staying in the village. When it was time to teach the boy, I would usually make the fold and have him crease, or vice versa. Together, we made four cranes in one day. On the very next day, I walked into the classroom to find him halfway finished with a crane that he had made entirely by himself. I sat in awe for the next ten minutes as I watched him struggle through the final creases. He successfully created his own crane. After I left this placement, I learned from the OT that this boy continued to make cranes, handing them out to other children as presents.

My second placement

Children in Vietnam

For my second placement, I was located at Friendship Village. I was able to live at the primary volunteer house in Hanoi during this time, but I took an hour ride via motorbike taxi to get to this village. Friendship village contains about 60 children, many of whom also live inside the centre. The majority of these children have Autism, and are the generational offspring of victims of Agent Orange from the Vietnam War. During my stay, I was located in the classroom reserved for children most severely impaired by Autism. Activities were rather limited in this classroom for several reasons. The first was that many of the toys were broken or had pieces missing. With activities that were intact, the children would either show no interest or would struggle to interact with them. I had to get creative during my time here, so the other volunteers and I rearranged the room in order to have a general play area with a separate area intended to remove the child from distraction.

My primary goal was just to get the children to engage in activities, and my efforts were met with some success. When I first arrived, there was a child with Down Syndrome and Autism who would spend the duration of class time sitting in a chair and playing with a piece of string. He absolutely refused to engage with any volunteers, and anything placed in front of him was usually thrown. Using a behavioural modification technique, and with much time and effort, I was able to get him to engage with certain activities through using his string as a reward.

Though it was quite a difficult process getting him from point A to point B, I am incredibly proud to say that I accomplished this. I would not say that my experience at Friendship Village is an accurate representation of the entire village, as all other classrooms contained children who had a much higher functioning level of autism.

Read more about: Occupational Therapy in Vietnam

Riley Thomas

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