When John Zeising read an article about a Colorado doctor’s humanitarian mission to Vietnam in the St. Anthony newsletter, he had no idea that less than two years later, he would be on a plane himself, heading to the Bach Mai Hospital in Hanoi.
“This was halfway around the world, and I’d never traveled before,” he said.
After reading the article, Zeising connected with its author, Carl Bartecchi, clinical professor of medicine at the University of Colorado School of Medicine and director of the Bach Mai Hospital Project. They corresponded by email, then met in person, and when the opportunity came up to go to Vietnam, Zeising said yes.
Teaching, learning and sharing
The mission of Bartecchi’s project is to train young Vietnamese nurses and doctors as instructors, paramedics and technicians, in order to improve the country’s emergency medical services.
“I was a flight surgeon during the Vietnam War, 1965-66, working closely with Vietnamese civilians,” Bartecchi wrote in an email, about how his project got started. “After the war and some reflection on the war and the problems that we caused there, I felt that we owed something to the Vietnamese people.”
He returned to Vietnam as a visiting professor of critical care medicine in 1997, leading the first classes himself. Since then, he’s returned twice a year to continue teaching and to bring in other instructors, like Zeising.
Zeising, 49, has followed a career as paramedic and firefighter for 15 years. The last five of those years have been for the Red, White and Blue Fire District in Breckenridge.
“Workers and friends and family asked me if I was excited before I went (to Vietnam). I said, I don’t know how to feel about this because I’m not really sure what I’m getting into,” he recounted. “The short story is, the experience — both for the primary mission of teaching medical skills as well as just living with the families and being in Vietnam — exceeded anything I could ever have imagined. It was definitely a life-expanding experience for me as an instructor and as a person.”
There were a few surprises thrown in, like when Zeising arrived and learned that he was going to be the instructional lead, and on the first day of teaching, when his class of 20 swelled to almost 50. Yet these “heart-palpitating moments” soon gave way to enjoyment of the experience, and forging connections and relationships that will remain strong into the future.
“John did a fantastic job,” Bartecchi wrote. “He did an excellent job of training the Vietnamese emergency personnel, teaching them new concepts, new skills and new ways to help patients in distress. While doing that, he made lasting friends who really appreciated his help and training style. They want very much to have him come back.”
In addition to teaching in the Bach Mai Hospital, Zeising went into smaller towns in the nearby countryside, both for instructing and exploring. Through these experiences, he learned about the Vietnamese culture, everyday life and the particular challenges facing the country’s burgeoning EMS system.
“Vietnam is a country where the primary focus for the people is on the bare necessities of life — jobs, food, housing. And having a well-developed EMS system has not been a high priority for them, with their finances. And part of that is, I think, also cultural. The Vietnamese people are very self-reliant, but as the population grows in their big cities and they start getting more medically knowledgeable, they’re realizing that the very sick and very hurt, the mortality and morbidity from acute illness and injury, could be reduced as it is in the United States and in the West by having an EMS system,” Zeising said. “We are trying to take pieces of the U.S. EMS system and pieces of the European EMS system and … build a new hybrid EMS system.”
Zeising had many memorable moments during his three-week stay, from attempting to learn the art of birdcage building in a small town to orchestrating a skills competition for his students on the last day.
“That whole morning of competition was just filled with the sounds of excitement and laughter. There were smiles everywhere, on every student, and they were just so thrilled with someone coming to help them learn more, and everything just kind of gelled at that point,” he said. “That last day was just amazing with how thrilled the students were and how they demonstrated how much they had learned in just three weeks.”
Support in Summit
Zeising received support from Red, White and Blue Fire District to do the trip, “from just conceptually but also helping me with time off,” Zeising said, “and then support from my fellow firefighters who were very interested in what I was doing and supportive in that sense, but also traded shifts with me so I could get even more time off.”
Fire chief Jim Keating said the organization was glad to support Zeising and his mission.
“He brought back a lot of experience and knowledge. … He’s got a talent in being able to deliver EMT type training,” Keating said. “We’re just very proud. … It was very important to him and it’s very important to us and we’re very pleased to say we’ve supported him. It did a lot of good for our organization as well as the folks he delivered the training to.”
Though Zeising doesn’t have his return plane ticket yet, he’s hoping to go back on another mission and possibly bring some colleagues along with him.
“There’s so much to be done, as there is in our country and anywhere else, but especially in Vietnam,” he said.
He never expected that he would travel so far abroad, much less that he would end up sharing his paramedic skills in a foreign country, but sometimes life happens, and in this case, he’s glad it did.
“If you just keep an open mind and just show up every day, wonderful things happen,” he said.