It was 1am on May 11, and Doctor Lai Ba Thanh at Vietnam’s level-2 field hospital in South Sudan and his colleagues were preparing to perform emergency surgery on a Mongolian soldier.
Doctor Lại Bá Thành (second from left) performs an operation on a Mongolian patient at Việt Nam’s level-2 field hospital in South Sudan. — Photo courtesy of Doctor Lại Bá Thành
It was 1am on May 11, and Doctor Lại Bá Thành at Việt Nam’s level-2 field hospital in South Sudan and his colleagues were preparing to perform emergency surgery on a Mongolian soldier.
The 39-year-old patient was diagnosed with volvulus and necrosis of the small intestine after being admitted to the hospital suffering severe abdominal pain.
“His medical records showed that he underwent an appendix operation two months ago. He also suffered from severe malnutrition,” Thành said.
“Volvulus and necrosis of the small intestine are rare so it's a challenge to diagnose and treat them, even in hospitals equipped with full medical equipment and devices. It was more difficult here at the field hospital in the war-torn South Sudan,” he said.
“The patient was in critical condition and could have died, so we had to make a quick decision after primary diagnosis in order to save him,” Thành said.
“Due to a shortage of medical equipment, we had to perform open surgery on the patient,” he said.
“It was lucky that the surgery was successful after five hours,” Thành said.
“The patient was transferred to a higher level hospital after a few days for further treatment and he was discharged after two weeks,” he said.
“The procedure was praised by Mongolian soldiers and doctors, as well as UN staff. Many foreign doctors were surprised that the Vietnamese doctors were able to perform the surgery in difficult conditions,” Thành said.
“I feel very proud and happy to have saved our patient that day,” he said.
This is just one example of over 30 operations Thành successfully performed during his 14 months serving as a UN peacekeeper in South Sudan.
Thành left Việt Nam for the African country together with 62 other military officials in October 2018.
The Vietnamese medical contingent was in charge of running the UN level-2 field hospital in Bentiu to provide medical care for over 1,800 military and civilian UN staff working in the north of South Sudan. They also took part in foreign affairs and offered medical care to locals.
According to UN standards, a level-II field hospital must be able to examine and offer treatment to a maximum of 40 outpatients a day and 20 inpatients within seven days. It should also self-equip with sufficient medicines, needles and other supplies needed in any circumstances while being able to provide both land and aviation patient transfers to a medical facility of a higher level.
Operating this kind of field hospital in a foreign country was a huge challenge for the Vietnamese army doctors, who had literally no experience before.
Although an intense training course was designed for the doctors with lessons in politics, English, military capabilities, survival skills, and ensuring security and safety, things in reality went beyond their imagination.
Thành remembers vividly their first days in Bentiu.
“All of us were shocked. Temperatures in Bentiu, one of the driest areas in South Sudan, range from 45-50 degrees Celsius. And there were no trees, making it even hotter,” he recalled.
“We ate canned food without vegetables. Water resources were not guaranteed in terms of both quality and quantity, and sanitation was very poor,” he said.
“Instead of carrying out operations in well-equipped and hygienic operating rooms, we had to perform field operations in tents filled with dust,” Thành said.
“Working in a war-torn country, we also had to take measures like any army unit during a war. We had to strictly follow UN peacekeeping rules as well as local and Vietnamese laws and military discipline to ensure safety,” he added.
“However, as soldiers, we encouraged each other to overcome these difficulties.”
“We found ways to adapt to the new environment such as learning from soldiers from other countries and planting trees and flowers with seeds brought from Việt Nam to make the barren area greener while supplementing our diets with vegetables,” he said.
“And we all gradually fitted into the new environment,” he said.
Apart from performing their daily duties as doctors, the Vietnamese soldiers took part in exchanges with delegations from other countries where they shared experience, and sang and danced with each other like close friends.
“Fourteen months working in South Sudan was a great chance for military doctors like us to learn a lot of new things,” Thành said.
The first members of Việt Nam’s level-2 field hospital arrive in South Sudan on October 2, 2018.
All of the hospital staff returned to Việt Nam last month. “We were proud to have fulfilled the tasks assigned by the State and army,” Thành said.
The hospital treated 2,022 patients including UN staff in South Sudan and local officials and residents, according to the Việt Nam Department of Peacekeeping Operations.
Many serious cases were successfully treated, including 62 surgeries.
Deputy Prime Minister Trương Hoà Bình said at a ceremony held by the Ministry of Defence on December 5 in HCM City to welcome the doctors home that the dedicated military medical personnel's outstanding reputation honoured the country. Each member of the hospital served as a peace ambassador from Việt Nam.
As recognition of their achievements, the UN Under-Secretary-General sent letters to the Government of Việt Nam, extending gratitude for the contribution of the hospital.
The UN presented a Certificate of Merit and medals for peacekeeping efforts to 63 members of the group, including four individuals who demonstrated excellent service.
Thành said their mission was completed but it did not mean an end to their peacekeeping efforts.
“I am very proud to be part of the peacekeeping mission and I hope to have the chance to serve again,” he said. — VNS