Healing in Vietnam works two Ways

Several years ago, when Rich and Jacquie Litchfield began looking for a meaningful way to volunteer, they were thinking of opportunities to give back. With two sons grown and independent and their own careers shifting toward retirement, the Eugene couple wanted to offer their time and skills in a gesture of appreciation for successful lives.

Now, almost two decades later, it seems that it’s been as much about what they are getting as what they are giving that keeps them returning to a dental hospital in Hanoi, Vietnam.

“It’s all about the relationships,” says retired orthodontist Rich Litchfield, 76. “We straighten some teeth but it’s really about relationships.”

Those relationships began in 2000 when Rich and Jacquie accepted a two-week Health Volunteers Overseas assignment at the National Hospital of Dentistry in Hanoi. A trip this spring will be the Litchfields’ 19th tour of service at the center.

A number of medical service groups provide basic dentistry practices in less developed nations, but 30 years of specialized practice as an orthodontist left Rich unprepared for the “drill and fill” of basic dental care. All orthodontists are dentists but only six percent of dentists are orthodontists—specialists who apply braces and align bite—according to the American Association of Orthodontists

At a 1999 national dental conference, Rich Litchfield chatted with volunteer service groups. “What do you have for me?” he asked. One response intrigued him: How about a teaching position at a dental hospital? How about helping practicing orthodontists update techniques and skills? How about two-weeks in Vietnam?

A volunteer position teaching orthodontic procedures sounded great, but Vietnam? That was a murkier matter.

Vietnam pricked unresolved feelings about a war that haunts the psyches of an American generation—the Litchfields’ generation, and mine. For many of us, Ken Burns’ recent PBS Vietnam War documentary rekindled the emotional and political quagmire of that era.

In 1967 at the height of the Vietnam conflict, Rich had just completed a four-year medical degree in dentistry at the University of Oregon Medical School in Portland. He and Jacquie had been married for two years. They met as classmates at Willamette University in Salem. Rich grew up in Newport. Jacquie was a townie, reared in Salem. After marriage, she taught in Portland high schools while Rich completed medical school.

Political strife in the United States and abroad influenced Rich’s 1967 decision to don a Navy uniform and accept a dentistry position with the US Public Health Service in Oklahoma to fulfill a two-year military assignment.

By the time the two settled in Eugene in 1971, Rich had completed a master’s degree in orthodontics. Jacquie accompanied him into dental practice as receptionist, bookkeeper and assistant.

Vietnam slipped into memory as the Litchfields focused on careers and family. Jacquie wrapped up a counseling degree at the University of Oregon and joined the 4J staff as a counselor in Eugene schools. School district budget cuts pushed her into retirement earlier than expected so she, too, was ready for another challenge when the couple began discussing volunteer service.

Questions hovered restlessly at the back of their minds as they prepared for the first trip to Hanoi in 2000. How would people react to them? Would they find a warm welcome or feel the chill of old antipathies?

“I am a child of the Vietnam era,” Rich says. “I had some feelings of responsibility. Here was a chance to face the people of North Vietnam and contribute something healing.”

It was a chance to be healed as well. That process began almost immediately when they landed in Hanoi. Awaiting them at the airport were four practicing orthodontic dentists, all women, who would be Rich’s first class of students.

Jacquie came bearing basic English language books and photos of life in Eugene to use as tools for a cultural exchange with the students. Although the Vietnamese dentists read and understood English, they lacked confidence to speak. Teaching sessions involved a complex exchange of English and Vietnamese between teacher and students. Camaraderie and trust emerged in the efforts to understand and be understood.

One day, Jacquie dared to admit her fears about volunteering in Vietnam. “I was hesitant to come here because of what you might think of us because of the war,” she told the women dentists. “They said, ‘Please release that.’ You are the richest country in the world. We need your help, your knowledge, and your protection,” recalls Jacquie, 75.

Uncertainties crumbled and relationships grew. Social visits with families and parents of the Vietnamese dentists brought them face-to-face with men who had brought down American planes in the war.

“I could have been one of those kids who might have been shooting at them,” Rich says. The conversations, layered in translations from English to Vietnamese and back, bridged the distance between youth caught on opposing sides of a battle. They freed the Litchfields to weave friendships that have acquired the strength of family connections.

“This relationship has been exciting,” Rich says. “It invigorates us. We connect on Facetime and email. They send me electronic photos to consult on cases.”

“It feels like family,” echoes Jacquie. “We are invited to their homes, to weddings, to New Year’s celebrations. We know their aunts and uncles and cousins.”

After Rich closed his Eugene orthodontics practice in 2007, his work in Vietnam has continued to stimulate and challenge professional skills. Since 2000, 20 orthodontists have stood at the side of a dental chair in Hanoi to learn from Rich’s teaching. They have practiced English and absorbed customs of Western culture in conversations with Jacquie. Some have now retired. Some have moved to other countries. Fourteen orthodontists currently serve patients at the National Hospital of Dentistry in Hanoi.

While the Litchfields have been contributing to the health of dental patients in Vietnam, they may be reaping health benefits of their own. At least two studies in the last decade have concluded that Americans over age 60 who volunteer report lower disability and higher well-being compared to non-volunteers. That converts to lower mortality and depression, higher self-esteem and happiness.

No wonder Rich and Jacquie remain committed to volunteering in Vietnam. “We will continue to go as long as we feel we are making a difference and being helpful,” Jacquie says.

Carolyn Scott Kortge of Eugene is a former Register-Guard editor and writer, and author of The Spirited Walker. Contact at spiritedwalker@gmail.com.


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