Viet Nam News
by Phương Hà
During 30 years’ work on Phú Quý Island in the East Sea in the central province of Bình Thuận, Dr Bùi Đình Lĩnh has treated so many serious cases and saved so many lives that he is referred to affectionately as "Uncle Lĩnh”.
Located 120km from the mainland, Phú Quý is isolated from the outside world and rarely visited by outsiders.
A few decades ago, life on the island was difficult. There was no fresh water, electricity or medical facility. All the paths were covered with sand while the only means of access to the island was by boat, which might take one or two days.
The islanders used to consult sorcerers or wait for a supernatural power to end their sickness, but many of them died in hopelessness. Several doctors from the mainland were assigned to provide medical care to the islanders, but none of them were patient enough to stay.
In 1986, 27-year-old doctor Lĩnh, a graduate from Thái Bình Medical University, got married and then volunteered to work on the island for three years after learning about the difficulties the islanders faced.
“I volunteered full of youthful aspirations without envisioning the shortages I would have to face,” he said. “Setting foot on the island, I saw endless white sand and a few houses and trees. I was truly disappointed.”
Lĩnh remembers when there was no hospital and the treatment room was little better than a village infirmary. It was in a dilapidated house used for treatment and accommodation for doctors and other medical staff. There was little medical equipment apart from basic instruments, such as stethoscopes, thermometers and blood pressure armbands.
The doctor therefore used to conduct clinical diagnosis based on his experience instead of tests, but practice makes perfect and he was able to make quick and precise conclusions. However, he had to be extremely careful. In cases of suspected appendicitis, Lĩnh had to make an examinations several times to make sure he was correct.
Years of diagnosing using his eyes, hands and even sense of smell made him aware of the faintest symptoms and what they could mean. Lĩnh’s high accuracy in diagnosis astonished doctors from the mainland.
“Clinical diagnosis has become my professional reflex. Some symptoms relate to certain diseases,” he said, "and it pays to know them.".
There are two windy seasons on Phú Quý Island – a season of north-easterly winds and a season of southern winds.
The first season creates a peak of respiratory diseases, the second one, lasting from December to January, is the season of digestive diseases.
The risk of disease outbreaks was high in the old days before there were more facilities and medicines.
Dr Lĩnh and other member of the medical centre used to visit each household to encourage them to lead a healthy lifestyle. Thanks to their efforts, the number of people with diseases fell significantly.
But the doctor’s mind was still occupied with many concerns. Serious cases that could not be handled by doctors on the island meant shifting the patients to the mainland. But sick people often became worse during the long journey to reach Phan Thiết City’s hospital.
So what was the difference between with or without doctors on Phú Quý Island? Such question motivated Lĩnh to venture into the battle of saving his patients from the hand of Death.
Lĩnh was the first doctor on the island to conduct an operation. “The islanders used to think that appendicitis could not be cured by operation. Some of the fishermen even died on boats while fishing offshore due to the ailment,” said Thanh Xuân, chairwoman of the island’s Red Cross.
“They even asked sorcerers to conduct ritual ceremonies, but their situations got worse. Then Dr Lĩnh arrived and everything changed positively.”
At that time, there was still no electricity on the island. The locals used incandescent lamps for lighting. Staff at the island’s medical centre had little experience of operations. The first was conducted by Dr Lĩnh in 1987.
A woman was transferred to the centre with an agonising bellyache. The sea was raging with strong force-six wind so no boats dared to transfer the patient to the mainland. She was in such critical condition that Lĩnh decided to perform an operation.
All the lamps were utilised to illuminate the operation. Operating devices were sterilised by steaming them on an oil stove. As the surgeon, Lĩnh carefully instructed other assistants on how to anaesthetise the patient.
The operation succeeded, saving the patient’s life by an inch and making other islanders believe that appendicitis could be cured. More and more islanders started going to the medical centre for treatment instead of sorcerers’ practice.
Life on the island lacks many things, but it is always full of affection, which has helped the doctor and his staff carry out the job for so long.
He still remember an elderly woman living near the harbour. After having a tumour removed by him, she carried coconuts to the hospitals every day as gifts for him for two years, even though he asked her not to do so.
In 1989, after his term of service on Phú Quý Island ended, Dr Lĩnh was preparing to go back to the mainland to work. However, the locals realised it would be hard to find another doctor with enough patience and dedication to be attached to the island and its people. Together they compiled a petition signed by all islanders to persuade him to stay.
The provincial health department agreed and the staff also agreed. Moved by the affection, Dr Lĩnh decided to stay for longer. In 1998, his working term on the island ended for the second time, and again the islanders pleaded for him to stay. Once more, he agreed despite his parents’ disapproval.
In 2006, after getting his master’s degree, Dr Lĩnh was made director of the AIDS Prevention Centre in Phan Thiết City. As soon as they learned about the information, Phú Quý islanders wrote a third petition persuading him to stay.
It was more dificult to choose staying or leaving as he had been away from his family for a long time, but finally, the islanders’ affection for their beloved doctor once again won him over.
But it also means that his own family had to suffer many disadvantages. Years of working far from home, Dr Lĩnh could only visit home once or twice a year. He missed both of his parents’ funerals, which tormented him for years.
Even though he has delivered many babies on the island, he could not be by his wife on time when she gave birth to their second daughter on the mainland due to the long distance.
Right from the first days on the island, Lĩnh was aware that it was necessary to train locals to take over his work. Today, many islanders have returned to work as doctors in their hometown, bringing new hope.
Over the past three decades, the healthcare services on Phú Quý Island have improved a lot. From a humble infirmary, now the medical centre has become a spacious hospital equipped with modern medical devices and technologies for diagnosis and treatment.
Dr Lĩnh’s dream of a better medical centre for the fishermen in his second home has now been realised. VNS