At 2:00 pm on a Tuesday afternoon, a young woman was admitted to the Da Nang Hospital of Traditional Medicine in Da Nang City.
The 22-year-old patient had been unable to move her legs since a traffic accident that nearly killed her three months earlier.
Doctors at the hospital conducted an examination of her condition, despite the patient’s emotional distress and lack of cooperation throughout the process.
Then a tall foreign woman dressed in a white coat sat down beside the weeping patient, held her hand, looked straight into her eyes and asked in Vietnamese: “Does it hurt?”
After a long conversation through an interpreter, the young woman eventually calmed down and was handed a jar of lotion to be applied to her legs where it hurt.
“It’s psychotherapy,” said Ha Thi Nhung, a technician at the hospital. “She always gets to know her patients before learning about their conditions. She gives them trust and hope through her eyes and gestures.”
For the past seven years, Nhung and her colleagues at the Da Nang Hospital of Traditional Medicine have become used to the expert bedside manner of 64-year-old U.S. physiotherapist Virginia Mary Lockett, who has been a volunteer to provide professional support for patients in Vietnam for nearly a decade.
The haunting tears
First arriving in Vietnam in 1995, her first reason for coming was to adopt a child with her husband.
It was by chance that the couple’s interpreter at the time learned of Lockett’s profession and invited her to his home in order to recommend some therapeutic exercise for his paralyzed father.
According to Lockett, the interpreter’s father had had his femur broken in a traffic accident, but had suffered complications that led to paralysis in his arms and legs, something which was put down to the lack of appropriate training for local doctors at the time.
She recalled telling the interpreter that his father would not have been in a situation like that had he been treated in the U.S.
Both the interpreter and his father burst into tears on hearing her words, the tears that haunted Lockett well after she returned to the U.S.
It was those very tears that prompted her to go back to Vietnam ten years later as a volunteer of Health Volunteers Overseas (HVO), a Washington DC-based non-profit dedicated to improving the availability and quality of healthcare in resource-scarce countries.
As an expert in physiotherapy, Lockett spent three weeks working with doctors at a functional rehabilitation center in Da Nang, where she helped train the technicians.
However, the brief volunteer program was far from enough to deliver what the devoted Lockett needed to make real changes.
Virginia Mary Lockett (second right) gives training to technicians at the Da Nang Hospital of Traditional Medicine in Da Nang City. Photo: Tuoi Tre
Lockett went back to the U.S. after those three weeks with the belief that her expertise was needed more in Vietnam than in America, and that her being in Vietnam would mean so much more to those patients.
After traveling back and forth between the two countries, the exhaustion and expense eventually gave way to the idea of settling down permanently in Vietnam, a decision that received the full support of her husband.
Her firstborn and first adopted child were already old enough to take care of themselves, while she thought it would do no harm for her other Vietnamese adoptee to live in his home country.
It took no time at all for the couple to go follow-through on their decision, and in the summer of 2006, Lockett and her husband sold their house and traveled across the ocean to Vietnam on a travel visa.
Prior to selling their home, Lockett had written a letter to the ambassador of Vietnam in Washington D.C., asking whether she could work long-term as a medical expert in Vietnam.
When she received the ambassador’s response that advised her to go and work for a non-governmental organization, she decided to found her own.
Steady Footsteps was founded with the goal of providing assistance to the disabled in Vietnam, with the three founding members being the couple and their Vietnamese interpreter Nguyen Huu Huy.
“They have great hearts, a frugal lifestyle and an unconditional willingness to do their best for the benefit of the patients,” Huy said. “They find joy in seeing their patients being treated free of charge.”
According to Nguyen Van Anh, the director of the Da Nang Hospital of Traditional Medicine, Lockett has brought new life to the hospital’s physiotherapy unit since she started working there as a volunteer.
The number of patients seeking physiotherapeutic treatment has increased to the point that expansions have had to be made, Anh said.
“For many years Virginia has worked the hours of any other employee without taking any days off despite her being a volunteer,” he added. “I even heard that she had once been warned of having her pension terminated for staying outside of the U.S. for too long. We have also offered to provide financial support by paying for her interpreter, but she rejected the idea right away.”
For Lockett, what she has done in Vietnam over the past ten years has been what she had wanted to do since graduating from medical school.