Dr. Charles Ruchalski administers injectable medication to a clinic patient during the month-long medical mission to Vietnam
It's been nearly four decades since America pulled out of the Vietnam War. But the effects of the conflict continue to be felt among that nation's poorer populations, with more than 100,000 Vietnamese having suffered amputations due to silent land mines, as well as through infections, diabetic complications and other illnesses.
That's why five members of the Temple's School of Pharmacy traveled to the nation's southern region earlier this summer to bring a pharmacy component to an existing medical mission.
Clinical Professor of Pharmacy Practice Charles Ruchalski, who served as the faculty sponsor for the trip, and students Thao Nguyen, Montano Recinto, Chi Tran and Hang Nguyen teamed up with faculty and students from Mercer University School of Engineering in Macon, Georgia, for the month-long medical mission.
The team visited local medical clinics and hospitals, as well as nursing homes, orphanages and Di Linh leprosy colony in Saigon, Can Tho, Dong Thap and Vung Tau. They treated more than 1,500 patients, assisting in the fitting of over 200 prostheses on amputees. They also donated more than 450 gift packages containing 5 kg of rice, noodles and other supplies.
"We did traditional pharmacy dispensing activities and patient counseling, but we also conducted more advanced clinical activities, such as checking vital signs, injecting medications, assisting with translation and, most uniquely, assisting with the fitting of prosthetics," said Ruchalski, who blogged about his Vietnam experience at crinvietnam.blogspot.com.
Ruchalski said that working 13 hours a day in 105-degree temperatures provided the pharmacy students with a unique opportunity to gain non-traditional experience.
"Sometimes, what the students traditionally think of as pharmacy is a temperature-controlled environment in the United States where you are dispensing medication, counseling patients or performing clinical pharmacy activities," he said. "This had some of that, but it also had lugging kilos of rice, sawing a metal prosthetic or pulling on a patient's legs so a doctor can manipulate their spine."
The Vietnam medical initiative was brought to Ruchalski's attention by Thao Nguyen, who participated in previous missions while an undergraduate student at Mercer. She participated in the first Vietnam medical mission in 2009 and has participated every year since.
"The patients that I saw, the poverty that I saw, the work that we did there was very meaningful for me; it created a long-lasting impression on me," said Nguyen, who was born in Vietnam but moved to the U.S. in 1994.
Nguyen first proposed the idea to the School of Pharmacy's administration, and after receiving their support, approached Ruchalski, who quickly signed on as a faculty advisor.
Nguyen said she enjoys seeing the teamwork between the students, their interactions with patients and the willingness to be emerged in another culture.
"I think it's a great opportunity for the students to have hands-on experience and a great cultural experience as well," she said. "It's also a chance to see how healthcare works globally.'
Ruchalski said Thao Nguyen and Recinto received advanced pharmacy practice experience and six credits for their participation in the medical mission, while Tran and Hang Nguyen received introductory pharmacy practice experience and credit hours.
Ruchalski said he hopes to continue to offer the trip annually as "an altruistic opportunity" for Temple pharmacy students.
"This is only chapter one of what I hope is a very long book of future medical missions through Temple's School of Pharmacy," he said.