In March, I traveled to Vietnam with Dr. Peter Newen. He was one of three plastic surgeons traveling on their own time and dime with the non-profit organization, Project Vietnam, based in Fountain Valley, Ca.
The mission of the surgical team was to perform cleft lip and palate surgery on some of the country’s poorest children. It would be the first time a military hospital in Ho Chi Minh City, would open its doors to American doctors. None of us could have imagined what awaited this surgical team.
After a 17 hour flight through Taipei, the 747 touched down on the tarmac. Dr. Newen stared out the window. It was a bittersweet homecoming. The American doctor from Huntington Beach, told me he remembered standing out there somewhere, at the airport, 40 years earlier…
It was a day in April, 1975, the US Embassy in what was then known as Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam, was on the verge of massive evacuation. The Viet Cong had advanced from the North and now were on the outskirts of Saigon. Peter Newen (he changed the spelling of his last name from Nguyen to Newen) was 9 years old at the time. He, his parents and 8 brothers and sisters had fled from their home, leaving everything behind. They rushed to the airport in Saigon, frantically trying to figure a way out of the country. Peter’s older brother Dr. Anthony Nguyen, now a Dentist in Corona, Ca., described the scene as pandemonium. He says he hung on tightly to his little brother, Peter’s hand, afraid to let it go.
Anthony explained, the only people who were allowed to leave the country, were US Embassy workers and Vietnamese who were sponsored by Americans. As fate would have it, the Nguyens’ ran into a former tenant at the airport. He was an American who had once rented their home near Saigon. The American agreed to sponsor the Nguyen family – all 11 of them. The family boarded a C-130 military transport aircraft, sat in its belly, and made their way to America, where they would build new lives.
Peter quickly adapted to his new country, academically, he thrived. By the time he was 14 years old, he started college. He attended the University of Chicago where he eventually earned a Medical Degree. By the time he was 27, he had completed a residency in plastic surgery at Brown University, making him the youngest plastic surgeon in the United States, at the time.
Through the years, Dr. Peter Newen built a reputation for being a skilled surgeon, meticulous as he is artistic. His work has been featured prominently in the media. Eventually, Dr. Newen opened The Image Center in Huntington Beach, a state of the art facility with dental care, wellness services, and its own surgery center.
Despite his successes and renown, Dr. Newen promised himself he would one day return to Vietnam to help his people. At the airport in Ho Chi Minh City, we met up with dozens of Project Vietnam volunteers including doctors, nurses and medical students. We boarded buses and made our way to the city center. Dr. Newen said he couldn’t believe all the changes: high-rise buildings, motor scooters and shopping malls that dominated the landscape. Despite all the progress, when we went to the Military Hospital 175 to meet the patients, it was apparent that Vietnam was still an underdeveloped country, with tremendous need.
The waiting room was overflowing with hopeful parents holding squirming children. It was a cacophony of cries. Dr. Newen and his colleagues, Drs. Alex Kim and Jed Horowitz powered through a seemingly endless line of pre-op patients. None of us had ever seen so many children with cleft lip and palate deformities. Dr. Newen explained in the United States, children like this are operated on as babies. Here they are much older. Their parents had traveled for as long as two days from the countryside for a chance to see the American doctors. Some of the children had gaping holes when they smiled. Others had to lay flat to eat, to prevent the food from coming out of their noses – evidence the surgeries were not merely cosmetic. One toddler, 18 months old had little teeth protruding from a bump under her nose. Her mother told us wherever she went, people gawked at her baby. She explained, without surgery, the child would be ostracized. She would never be able to find a decent job or marry. Dr. Newen said the girl would be his first patient. The surgery took a couple of hours. When she was handed back over to her mother, she gazed at her daughter and wept. She assured me they were tears of joy. Though her daughter’s face was swollen, her small teeth were now inside her newly shaped mouth. She told me her daughter was beautiful. Through her tears she said, “com-on,” Vietnamese for “thank you,” to Dr. Newen and the Americans working with Project Vietnam.
Over the course of the next 5 days, the surgeons worked tirelessly. Dr. Newen was operating on 7 children a day. He was jet lagged and under the weather, but he never turned one child away. By the time their mission was complete, the surgical team had changed the lives of more than 75 children. But if you ask them, they’ll say it was the children who transformed their lives – reminding them why they pursued medicine in the first place.
For Dr. Peter Newen, it was personal. He says he could see his own daughter, Elise in the faces of his young patients. He said the only difference between the two, was the fortune of where they were born, and the opportunities afforded them by their parents. Dr. Peter Newen’s brother, Dr. Anthony Nguyen, held back tears as he told me how proud he was of his little brother. As a young boy who was forced to leave one country, only to find huge success in another, Dr. Peter Newen made good on his promise to one day return and make a difference in the lives of his former countrymen.
Thelma Gutierrez is a former CNN Correspondent and award winning medical reporter who started The Content Creators, specializing in Medical Content. Thelma@TheContentCreators.net. Photos by Jonathan Gabbai.