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Putting a Smile on Children’s Faces in Vietnam

Congratulations 2015 National David Lawrence Community Service Award finalist Nathan (Nhat) Le, M.D., Kaiser Permanente Irvine Medical Center

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2015 David Lawrence Community Service Award Finalist

Nhat (Nathan) Le, MD, is one of two finalists for the 2015 annual David Lawrence Community Service Award for the Southern California region. This award recognizes individuals and teams at Kaiser Permanente who champion outstanding activities and initiatives to positively impact health, whether it is in their local communities or abroad. They embody Kaiser Permanente’s mission to improve community health and they are committed to important health and social issues, such as increasing access to health care for the underserved, eliminating disparities in health outcomes of racial and ethnic minorities, addressing the social determinants of health, and being strong stewards of our natural resources.

To recognize their amazing work and dedication to giving back, David Lawrence Community Service Award winners receive a $10,000 grant to a nonprofit of their choosing, which is funded by Kaiser Permanente’s national Community Benefit. 

Kaiser Permanente Irvine Medical Center anesthesiologist Nhat Le, M.D.

Although Vietnam has made significant progress in its health care system over the past decade --life expectancy is 72.8 years, infant mortality rate has dropped nearly 30%, and rates of malnutrition in children under five have fallen dramatically from 54% to 24.5%-- many difficulties and challenges persist in this South East Asian country. These challenges are especially visible in remote areas with large ethnic minority populations, which usually have higher health care needs, higher rates of malnutrition, and less access to care than larger cities.

In Vietnam’s remote areas, the majority of the population still lacks knowledge about their health conditions, and often resorts to home remedies that may or may not be effective. To help reduce the disparity in access to health care, Project Vietnam Foundation (PVNF) has conducted medical mission trips to remote areas in Vietnam since 1996, traveling to the most remote and underserved areas in Vietnam where health care is limited and pediatric care is nonexistent.

As a volunteer for PVNF, Kaiser Permanente Irvine Medical Center anesthesiologist Nhat Le, M.D. has completed 12 annual medical/surgical missions to his native Vietnam since 1999. A pediatric anesthesiologist, Dr. Le provides anesthesia for corrective surgeries such as cleft lips, cleft palates, strabismus, and congenital cataracts, performed on children in Vietnam’s most vulnerable communities.

Cleft lip and palate is an area of high vulnerability for children from remote villages, causing malnutrition, speech and language impairment, and seriously hindering a child’s emotional and mental development. In many areas, cleft lips and palates are a source of shame, causing afflicted children to be kept home and away from school, unable to socialize or receive an education.

PVNF conducts three, 2-week-long mission trips each year. The Spring Trip in March involves free surgeries for children with birth deformities, primary care work, and training programs by specialists. Summer Service camp consists of a medical team and 75 student volunteers working at rural clinics providing medical, dental, and vision care. And the November trip provides training for neonatal, pediatric, and specialty care.

Dr. Le co-leads the surgical team during the annual mission trips in March, teaming up with PVNF co-founder Chan Quynh, M.D.  In addition to preparing all of the necessary anesthetic supplies for the trip, Dr. Le organizes the children’s pre-op evaluations, runs the operating and recovery room, and coordinates post-op care before patients are discharged back to their villages. All of this, in addition to anesthetizing the patients for their surgeries.

Since its founding, PVNF has performed 1,770 surgeries in remote, underserved areas for children with eye problems and cleft lip and palate. The children who have undergone surgery are now able to attend school, develop self-confidence, and live a normal, bully-free life. In addition, PVNF has provided free medical exams, dental treatment, and vision care to 8,110 people in rural areas and has provided training to local health care staff, focusing on pediatric care.

Dr. Le and his volunteers seek to create systems which can provide sustainable services. In March 2015, the team discovered a group in the highlands of central Vietnam with a high rate of hemoglobin problems. Subsequently, the group worked together with a local trucking company in Northern California to donate a refrigerator for storing donated blood, and performed transfusion at a district hospital that is closer to the afflicted children. Project Vietnam Foundation is currently working with the local Medical School and Children’s hospital in Vietnam to conduct a survey of the children at risk of developing Thalassemia, a condition which, when diagnosed early, can be treated to minimize long-term damages.

Dr. Le has made it his personal mission to ‘make a difference in another person’s life.’ He has a wonderful life and wants to make life beautiful for others in return. He understands the needs of these children and that is why he had chosen to be an active member and supporter of the Project Vietnam Foundation. He cares deeply for the children he serves in Vietnam, and he works hard to recruit other quality medical professionals to join his team.