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Lan's Story

Towards the end of our visit to Vietnam part of Hao’s family accompanied us up to Ho Chi Minh City to see the sights and help us purchase our traditional engagement clothes. On the first day we were there Hao’s 17 year old cousin Lan started to complain about problems with her left eye. With a little prodding it came out that she couldn’t see out of it anymore.

“She’s blind in one eye?” I asked after all the conversations had been translated for me.

“Yes,” I was told. But the family’s reaction was a little disconcerting. They assumed a general, “Shake it off,” attitude. These people were farmers and in their experience sometimes people got sick, sometimes people went blind, but they would either get better or not. They weren’t really interested in talking about it and started trying to decide where to eat lunch.

We had seen an international clinic nearby so after shoving bills into her family’s hands to pay for lunch, we dragged Lan off to see a doctor. The first clinic’s doctors were all out at lunch, but we found another international clinic right across the street, one that Hao was familiar with from her time with McKinsey and Company. Given their reputation for hiring only the best we made a bee-line for their front door.

Their doctor was willing to see Lan in 15 minutes, and in the meantime a nurse gave her a preliminary examination. The first doctor couldn’t find anything specifically, physically, wrong with her eye and we were told they would have to bring in an Ophthalmologist to look at it. “Oh, how long will that take,” Hao asked. “About 15 minutes; they’re bringing him in by motorbike now,” was the response.

We couldn’t even imagine what this was all going to cost us. Bringing in specialists just to see us? Yikes. But family is family and what could be more important. So, she saw the ophthalmologist and they determined that she needed another specialist since he also couldn’t find the issue. Although, we now knew that her eye was no longer dilating, and that it seemed to be from a vascular blockage in her eye.

“How long until we can see the specialist,” Hao asked the receptionist. The answer was another 30 minutes while they drove them in. “Go get some lunch and come back,” they told us.

“Do you want us to pay for what you’ve done already, before we go?” I asked. The receptionist looked puzzled, as if in Vietnam no one would ever run out on a medical bill. No, he told us, we should just pay when we got back.

We went across the street for lunch and got it to go so we could go back to the clinic. Each of us tried to cheer Lan up, Hao through reassurance, and I through pantomime and my preschool Vietnamese. We were back in under 30 minutes, and the second specialist was early so she saw Lan right away.

Hao came out looking visibly upset and I feared the worse. But she told me it was ok, and that the problem was caused by the street-pharmacist motion sickness patch Lan was wearing. “It should be alright in a few days; she wrote a couple of prescriptions.” But she still looked mad.

Time for the bill; one nurse, one doctor, two specialists, and two prescriptions… $83. I actually goggled at the receptionist. I would never have received that level of care in the United States. Even my co-pay for three doctors would have been higher than her whole bill. Not bad. Now, to put it in perspective, we’d just spent three month’s pay for the average Vietnamese citizen on that bill. Eighty dollars to find out the problem was the twenty five cent over the counter drug patch, but still, we were satisfied. We didn’t tell Lan what it cost.

When we left the clinic, I found out what was bothering Hao. It seems that when the nurse checked Lan’s vision she noticed Lan couldn’t see very well out of her other eye either. Hao pressed the issue with Lan and found out her 17 year old cousin had dropped out of school after 8th grade because she, “Couldn’t read the board anymore,” and was “Getting headaches all the time from reading.” Now, since she isn’t in school anymore her parents have been looking to get her married since she doesn’t have any other prospects. But the only reason she had to leave school was because she was nearsighted; a fact which had never occurred to anyone. It seemed that not seeing things well and getting constant headaches fell into the same life category as sudden blindness and falling over dead for no apparent reason; it was something that happened to people and you should just move on.

To be fair, even if someone had noticed, the cost of eyeglasses would be a significant portion of their income. $30 for frames and lenses for a cheap pair for people who have an average monthly income of $20. How many of us would be stumbling around and bumping into things if we needed to spend 67% of our month’s pay on eyeglasses. But we were appalled; the difference between Lan finishing High School, going to college, and having a career, and her being married with kids by 19 was a $30 pair of glasses.
Hao is a feminist, and there is no way any rationale person, let alone a feminist and Wellesley graduate, is going to like that idea. It goes without saying that we bought her glasses later that day, but there was more.

The last doctor who examined Lan asked where she was from. Hao explained that she lived in Ho Phong, near Ca Mau. At that point the doctor stopped speaking directly to Lan and started talking through Hao, who’s Vietnamese, while good, was hardly as good as Lan’s. She explained, in English, that since there was nothing terribly wrong with Lan physically, and because she had dropped out of school so young, that she must be mildly retarded.

Hao didn’t bother pointing out the newly discovered fact of Lan’s nearsightedness as she was so caught off guard by the flip assumption that if someone was from the south it was likely they were mentally deficient.

Our experience with Lan solidified our intention to add other services to the offerings at our libraries. Eye exams and free glasses are something we will provide somehow. Because if Lan nearly slipped through the cracks from a lack of $30 glasses, how many other people’s lives are irrevocably changed by vision problems? Besides, if we’re promoting reading it would be foolish to ignore problems with people’s vision which could deny them the experience.

As a footnote, Lan is back in High School. She has been enrolled in Summer tutoring and will take accelerated classes to finish in 2 years. We’re paying the full cost of her education personally, and have offered to pay for her continued education through college. But that’s all we can do as two individuals. As members of the Vietnam Learning Association we hope to do far more for all the people like Lan, in every community we serve.


Christopher Donald
Vietnam Learning Association

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