Palomar Health Surgeons Volunteer Their Time to Help Trauma Patients in Vietnam


A group of American orthopedic surgeons, led by Palomar Health Orthopedic Trauma Surgeon Serge Kaska, MD, are changing the lives of patients living in Hanoi and Ha Giang, Vietnam who suffer from untreated traumatic injuries.
Dr. Kaska made his fifth annual pilgrimage to Vietnam the last week of May with Palomar Health Sports Medicine Specialist Kevin Owsley, MD, and three other orthopedic surgeons from Ventura County. Dr. Kaska made his first trip to Vietnam with a group of plastic surgeons in 2015.
“I saw some of the most incredible cases I’d seen in my entire career in one day,” Dr. Kaska said of that first trip.
After gaining the trust of local physicians on his first day, he started performing surgeries on Vietnamese patients the second day. He considers his time in the operating room an exchange of skills. He says Vietnamese doctors have their own way of doing things and use equipment he’s not used to, but they are effective nonetheless. In return, the Vietnamese physicians love to learn from him and the other American doctors. The American physicians perform surgeries as unpaid volunteers.
In 2016, Dr. Kaska returned to Vietnam with Ventura County Medical Center Orthopedic Trauma Surgeon Emily Benson, MD, who he met when she did her fellowship at Palomar Medical Center Escondido. Recently the two of them set up a non-profit organization, Viet-Cal Medical Exchange, to facilitate the group of physicians and support staff who annually return to Vietnam.

This year Orthopedic Trauma Surgeon Tom Golden, MD, and Orthopedic Surgeon Casey Pyle, MD, accompanied Drs. Kaska, Owsley and Benson along with several general practitioners and support staff totaling 15.
Hanoi and Ha Giang present a plethora of unique orthopedic trauma cases because everyone rides mopeds. Dr. Owsley said he saw families of five riding on one moped, and others carrying refrigerators, bees and chickens. Because of the high density of people zooming around it leads to many collisions and lots of work for orthopedic surgeons.
“At Palomar, we have several open fractures (an orthopedic emergency) per week,” Dr. Owsley said. “They had at least 10-15 in one night.”
The amount of traumatic injuries in Hanoi can overwhelm the system and frequently patients may have extended wait times for surgery. Many injuries in the rural provinces don’t seek care initially or will use traditional healing techniques and only go to the hospital months or years after a serious fracture. Dr. Kaska says the Vietnamese people live with injuries we can’t imagine in the United States.

The team of five surgeons performed 25 surgeries in four days, after two days of screenings. Patients are referred by the host Vietnamese physicians. Those who were turned away as unfit for surgery were “incredibly humble and gracious,” Dr. Owsley said. “They were just thrilled to have the attention.”
A unique aspect of Vietnamese hospitals is the involvement of the families in the nursing care.  Family members are responsible for cleaning and feeding the patients. 
“If your father is in the hospital for hip replacement, then every day you show up with a basin of soap and towels and you clean your father so he is as clean as possible,” Owsley said.
Rooms would be lined with 30-40 patients, sometimes two patients would share the same bed, Dr. Kaska said. They don’t put patients under general anesthesia for the most part. The anesthesiologist will use regional anesthesia for the majority of the operations. One night the lights went out during a hip replacement surgery and there were no backup generators.
“The Vietnamese surgeons with us immediately flicked on their iPhones, there wasn’t anybody running around or panicking, it was as if it was not uncommon,” Dr. Kaska said. 
They finished the surgery under the cell phone flashlights.
“The Vietnamese surgeons’ ability to perform excellent trauma surgery with sometimes limited resources is incredible,” Dr. Kaska said. 
Dr. Kaska says he hopes to expand the program moving forward by bringing more American doctors each year. Last month a group of general practitioners accompanied him for the first time and learned how Vietnamese doctors treat a high volume of patients. He wants to bring more doctors from Vietnam to the United States to observe and learn how we perform complex surgeries.
To learn more about the physician exchange program and how to donate, please visit the Viet-Cal website:
Photo caption: Dr. Kaska examines a Vietnamese child for an orthopedic trauma injury.

Photo caption: Dr. Owsley assesses a patient’s knee for possible surgery.

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