53578036-9e1f-4a5d-a561-5a1ea75e94d1In late May 2019, Maria Tantsits (class of 2020) and Assistant Clinical Professor Dr. Linda Du headed out across the Pacific Ocean for a 12-day mission trip to Vietnam. It was a homecoming of sorts, even though Dr. Du had never visited the country before. Both women have family there, so Dr. Du met some family members for the first time, and Maria was reunited with her grandma and cousin, whom she had not seen in 13 years!

The group organizing the trip was Hand-in Hand Share Missions. According to Maria, “It was the first time they had an optometrist come along, so I was very excited to be able to learn and hone my clinical skills under Dr. Du’s supervision, but also educate the medical team on optometry.”

The first destination was Pleiku, and then the group took a bus to Kon Tum. Both places are in the central highlands region of Vietnam. Most of the patients the group saw were not Vietnamese, but of an ethnic minority group who had traveled from Cambodia. Translators (often children) were on hand to assist the patients in addressing their main health concerns. The College’s optometry duo worked alongside medical doctors, pharmacists, dentists, and a vitals team. The group left extra medications and supplies at local churches. Dr. Du explained, “The team had a teaching clinic with the nuns and priests, so that they would be able to dispense them and assist the community in staying healthy.”

Dr. Du has participated in a number of mission trips, but something about this one really caught her attention: “The group had a ‘play team’ whose job it was to entertain the children who are waiting long hours to seek medical care with their families. They brought toys and coloring books along. It really helped the children, especially the stuffed animals they could hold onto while getting a tooth extracted.”

Another blessing was the food. Dr. Du said, “A group in the church would make our meals each night. It was a feast at each meal time, three times per day! Ever since I’ve been back in St. Louis, I’ve been craving Vietnamese food.”

Maria’s favorite moment came when giving a 97-year-old man a pair of glasses. She said, “He couldn’t stop looking at his wife because it’s been years since he’s been able to see her clearly! It was this experience as well as many others that made me realize how the sleepless nights and the endless hours of studying were all worth it.” This, along with the chance to work closely with Dr. Du, cemented this amazing experience. “I always knew she is such a compassionate person, but being able to see her treat patients over there was inspiring. She is a great role model and being able to learn from her was one of my favorite parts of the trip. Any pathologies she saw, she would quickly have me take a look and explain what we could do in Vietnam with limited resources AND what we would do over in the states,” Maria said.

Dr. Du estimated that their team saw over 1,200 patients. The trip was so successful that both Dr. Du and Maria are already plotting how to go back next year and anyone who is able to donate small toys or stuffed animals for the “play team” to take on next year’s trip should contact Dr. Du at: nguyenlt@umsl.edu. “This is the best mission trip I’ve been lucky to participate with, from the people on the trip, meeting the patients, the food, to experience the country side, and form lasting friendships with everyone, to build a common goal and community,” Dr. Du said.