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Vietnam tour brings healing to kids, visitors

Published Oct. 4, 2005

For many years after what they call "the American War," Vietnamese children running through fields and bombed-out buildings would trip bombs, booby traps or shells and become crippled.

Years passed, and the war of their fathers no longer hit so directly at the children. They found new horrors to face.

In rural areas there were regular bouts of hunger. People grew rice paddies in flooded shell holes, grew shrimp among the rice plants _ and still suffered from a lack of protein.

Malnutrition was commonplace in some areas during some periods. Children born to ill-nourished mothers had diseased spines, brain damage, stunted limbs.

More stunting of small limbs came with postwar "progress." When Dr. Jeffrey H. Garrison of Bayfront Medical Center's department of physical medicine and rehabilitation visited Hanoi last May, he could not get over the wild, and yet family oriented, street scenes.

"Motor scooters were everywhere," he says. "Roaring about, accelerating, sweeping wide. You'd see families of four _ two adults, two children _ on a single scooter, and none of them wearing a helmet."

Garrison saw head injuries in the whitewashed ward of the understaffed, under-equipped children's hospital. Many such injuries manifest themselves in limbs that do not work properly.

He also saw diseases that cripple children everywhere, even diseases that have disappeared in most of the world. "The polio vaccine is cheap," he says, "but it's still beyond the resources of some of these countries."

Garrison went to Vietnam with Jeffrey Fredrick, who lost a leg in the war and now has an orthopedic clinic in Tallahassee, and Quan Pham, a Vietnamese orthopedic technician now living in the United States.

They were on grants from the Agency for International Development and the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation to help smooth problems so a clinic can supply Vietnamese children with modern plastic braces.

Many of these children now hop about on primitive bamboo braces. Others have nothing at all.

The new clinic already has imported equipment, including an infrared oven to bake flesh-colored plastic onto leg braces. The braces will be molded to the children's limbs.

Vietnam meant something personal to each of the visitors. Fredrick says he is not bitter over losing his leg to a booby trap: "I'm probably lucky to have one good leg left."

Pham was 7 and had to stay back with his grandmother when his parents and siblings fled on one of the last American helicopters. It was six years before they managed to bring him to America.

Garrison was a Quaker who told his draft board he would go to jail before fighting what he considered an unjust war. On the recent trip, he took many rolls of film, amazed at the friendliness of a people from whom he had expected antagonism. "They would tell me, "Governments make wars; people don't.' "

Garrison's wife, Christy, a nurse, went along to work with the children. "They couldn't speak English but they could sing it," she recalls. "I approached a group sitting on the grass.

"To welcome me, they began singing, "One little Indian, two little Indians, three little Indians.' Someone had taught them. So I taught them Good Morning to You."

Garrison hopes to make other working visits to the hospital. "But the Vietnamese are formal people," he says. "With them you wait to be asked."

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