DtM donor brings Firefly home to Vietnam

This summer, my husband and I donated Firefly newborn phototherapy devices to two hospitals in Central Vietnam.  One hospital was located in Quang Nam, the village where both my parents are from and where my father is now buried.  We went to each hospital with my extended family to personally deliver the medical devices.

This was my family’s second annual trip to Vietnam.  I immigrated to the US from Vietnam with my mother in 1975.  She recently moved back to Vietnam.  My husband and I really value the time with family. Our twin boys, Hunter and Alexander, are 6 and we feel it’s important to expose them to their cultural heritage.   After a month-long trip in 2015, my boys really wanted to go back. They are at an age where they are starting to ask lots of questions about the world, in particular, why things in Vietnam are so different from our life in New York City.  This summer, we felt they were old enough to begin to understand how we could help and why it was important.  

Jaundice is a health issue that affects two-thirds of all newborns, and without treatment it can lead to deafness, other permanent disabilities and even death.  Untreated jaundice is a serious health problem in rural Vietnam, where many children are born at home and many rural hospitals lack even the basic equipment necessary to treat jaundice.

We have first-hand experience with jaundice.  My twin sons were born premature and spent five weeks in a NICU at one of the world's best hospitals in New York.  They developed jaundice soon after birth and received phototherapy treatment while they were in the hospital.  At the time, we understood that jaundice was nothing to worry about because treatment was simple and reliable.  As a mother, I can't imagine a newborn from my family’s village in Vietnam growing up disabled because the local hospital couldn't treat something as simple as jaundice.  

Parents in Quang Nam face many challenges.  Their babies shouldn't be victims of untreated jaundice.  Firefly is a simple tool, but it's so effective at eliminating this unnecessary suffering.  My husband and I became DtM donors in 2013, and I have served on the DtM board of advisors for years.  This trip was the first time we've become so personally involved in DtM's work.

On this trip, I traveled to Da Nang Women and Children’s Hospital and Quang Nam Hospital to meet the clinical team and to officially deliver the Firefly phototherapy devices at both facilities. These are two very different hospitals. A sophisticated tertiary care hospital with hundreds of beds, Da Nang is much a larger hospital than Quang Nam. The hospital has two or three rooms with infant warmers, incubators, and other types of machinery. There are separate rooms where families practice kangaroo mother care (KMC) with their newborns. The rooms were crowded, with babies lying on top of moms, dads, aunties, and grandmas. The family members would take turns. In the NICU and neighboring rooms alone, I saw easily more than 100 babies. The rooms were crowded, with roughly one bed space between each bed. 

Tam Ky is much smaller than Da Nang, with fewer pieces of equipment.  I know how frightening the experience is for parents in the US, where we have state-of-the-art hospitals, equipment and healthcare.  When my sons were in the NICU, my mother was visiting from Vietnam, and she came to the hospital every day to visit them. She felt so grateful for the exceptional care they were getting in America, in some ways more than I could understand.

The differences between the NICU in a hospital in New York City and a NICU in a small, rural hospital like Quang Nam are stark. It really hit home for me to see babies facing similar health issues trying to survive in such a different context. The were so many more babies than there were nurses to care for them, where in the US each baby had all the professional care they needed.. There were so many babies, and just not enough nurses or equipment to go around. It’s very difficult to see newborns in these circumstances. I recognize that the mothers in the halls at Quang Nam could have been me, and the babies crowded in the beds could have been my sons. 

Because the hospital has little equipment and fewer clinical resources, babies are often transported to bigger referral hospitals for care. Hospitals like Quang Nam tend to be great places to donate a Firefly device. Jaundice is such a simple condition to treat, and Firefly is so simple to use. If smaller hospitals are able to administer phototherapy onsite, this not only increases a newborn’s chance of averting disability or death from jaundice, but also helps to reduce overcrowding in larger hospitals like Da Nang. 

My extended family has lived very close to Quang Nam hospital, and yet before the trip we took together none of us really understood the limits the hospital faces in treating newborns, even for in the US would be considered a simple cases like jaundice.  We were all moved to see the hospital and hear the doctors talk about Firefly first hand.  My family is committed to bringing additional Firefly units to treat jaundice in our region.