Last week, Frani Jenkins, a physician’s assistant with the Northwest Colorado Visiting Nurse Association in Craig, arrived in Vietnam.
During her 17-day stay, she and other volunteers for Children of Peace International will travel throughout the country to provide medical care to needy people in rural areas, mostly in orphanages and schools.
This is Jenkins’ sixth medical mission in the communist country. She has volunteered her time and money to the effort roughly every other year since 2001.
“I first found out about Children of Peace from a patient,” Jenkins said. “I said, ‘Where do I sign up?’”
Jenkins entered medicine as a midlife career change in her 40s, partly because she wanted to provide health care in a third-world country.
A few years after graduating from the University of Utah with her PA degree, she was making her first trip abroad.
“It was something that I wanted, but I didn’t think it would happen so soon,” she said.
Traveling to Vietnam, she said, helped her reconcile decades-old feelings on the region and its rocky history with the U.S.
“My college years were during the Vietnam War,” said Jenkins, 60. “I had a lot of issues because it was such a difficult time for our country.
“There were so many young men that were killed and so many young men who came back with what we know now is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
“It was a really healing time for me to go because I had a lot of questions about Vietnam.”
While she had once questioned the decisions of the U.S. government in the 1960s, she now rails against the unfairness of the Vietnamese government that took full control of the region in 1975.
“It’s a communist country,” she said. “And when we go, we are never assured that a clinic is going to happen, even up until the moment we start seeing patients because the police can come in and shut us down.
“And they watch us, so we’re very careful.”
Jenkins said the government poorly represents Vietnamese people.
“Seven percent of people belong to The Party, and they make the decisions for the other 93 percent,” she said.
The Southeast Asian nation does not provide adequate health care to its people, she said.
“We’ve had people say, ‘You’ve come 10,000 miles away to take care of us when our own government won’t take care of us,’” Jenkins said.
Aside from being a medical mission, Jenkins said the trip is also about promoting peace.
“It’s been really wonderful to meet the people of Vietnam,” she said. “They’re gracious. They certainly do not harbor any ill will toward us.”
Occasionally, however, she has entered into communities where people hold a grudge.
During Jenkins’ third mission, the volunteers provided care to a southern community that had been sympathetic to North Vietnam during the war. When the volunteers’ work was done, they were invited for tea by the village elders.
One elder offered a toast, Jenkins said.
“He said, ‘We heard that you were coming, but we didn’t believe that you would come,” she recalled of the toast. “And, in fact, we didn’t know if we wanted you to come because you’re Americans. We didn’t know if we wanted Americans here. But now we see the love and the care that you’ve extended to our children. And, we can extend that same love and care to you.’”
Jenkins said it’s moments like those that make the hard work worthwhile.
“My thinking is peace happens one person at a time,” she said. “Whoever is across from me is who I’m going to concentrate on.”
Ben McCanna can be reached at 875-1793 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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