Dr. Thanh, who is now 50, hardly has any free time, but he spent all his precious hours this morning with me to look back at some of the milestones in his life and career.
At the age of 17, he took a university entrance exam for the Medical University, aiming to achieve good enough scores to study abroad. He passed, but his mark was not enough to go study overseas.
Not to be discouraged, he was determined to become a good surgeon. As a left-handed student, he knew he had to perfect the use of his right hand to master the scalpel, so for four years he forced himself to brush his teeth, use scissors, and give injections with his right hand. “Those poor patients I delivered injections to at that time!” he smiles. “I’m sure it was painful, but they didn't say a word.”
Foreign languages are also necessary for a good surgeon. He had hoped to serve his probation periods in France but English and Russian were compulsory subjects in the university at that time. However, with his unique talents, particularly in listening and speaking, foreign languages were not unusually difficult challenges for him.
Every night, he spent most of his rare free time learning French. Eventually he passed a daunting French language proficiency test to become the youngest doctor of Department 1B (now the Cardiovascular Surgery Department) at Viet Duc Hospital and was able to enter an overseas training course in France. Later, he returned to Paris twice to further his knowledge and skills for treating congenital heart disease.
Dr. Thanh has operated on many hearts. The oldest patient he worked on was 86, and the youngest was a one month old newborn weighing only 2.5 kilograms.
“Viet Duc Hospital started performing cardiac surgeries in 1965”, he said. “However, paediatric patients who weighed less than ten kilograms could not be operated on until four decades later. And now, only five years after that, we regularly perform heart surgeries on children aged between three and five. This proves that our surgical skills have improved rapidly. Age and weight are no longer barriers to heart operations.”
Arriving at the paediatric ward of the Cardiovascular Centre of Hanoi's Hospital E, I saw many young mothers carrying babies who were born with heart ailments. They desperately wanted to be set free from pain and regain a healthy heart. Their eyes sparkled with the light of hope and their total trust in Dr. Thanh.
I also had a chance to talk with a child who was at risk of losing his life if a heart transplant was not performed in time, and another who underwent two heart surgeries that did not stop the progression of their disease. Both, after receiving treatment from Dr. Thanh, were now ready to be discharged from the hospital. Witnessing the smile on Thanh’s face when he examined the two patients, I understand how much the priceless gift of a healthy heart from the kind and gifted doctor means to those patients.
Dr. Thanh is reticent to talk about his achievements, but I know how hard he has worked to build such a modern cardiovascular centre and provide his patients with a normal life.
More than 2,000 heart surgeries have been performed at the centre since it opened two years ago. However, this is a modest number compared to the more than ten thousand children in Vietnam who are born each year with heart problems. The doctor would surely be heartbroken if he has to face a moment of ‘the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak’ and see one of his patients pass away.
In addition to playing his role as a surgeon, Dr Thanh also helps improve the knowledge and qualifications of the medical staff at the centre. He spends many weekends with his colleagues offering free heart screenings for patients in remote areas and he is also one of the pioneers who initiated the Operation Healthy Heart programme that provides free surgeries for disadvantaged children with congenital heart defects. Since its inception, the programme has drawn much attention across society through joining hands to create a better life for those who sufferer from heart defects.
However, one swallow does not make a spring. The cardiovascular field in Vietnam needs many more specialists like Dr. Thanh to help more patients with heart defects attain a normal life. This has also been the kind-hearted doctor's burning ambition he has nurtured for a long time. The lunar Nham Thin Year (Year of the Dragon) has already arrived. May this spring brings with it hopes for many dreams soon to come true.
Associate Professor, Dr. Le Ngoc Thanh, born in 1961-the lunar Tan Suu year (Year of Buffalo), is currently Deputy Director of the Hanoi Hospital E and Head of its Cardiovascular Centre. He is also Vice President cum General Secretary of the Vietnam Association of Cardiovascular and Thoracic Surgery, and member of the Asian Society for Cardiovascular and Thoracic Surgery executive board.