Once a month, Dr. Le Thi Ngoc Anh of Hanoi loads a van full of medical supplies and a few other health care providers and heads for the mountains about an hour’s drive from the Vietnamese capital.
Le’s team makes its rounds to remote villages in Hoa Binh Province, an impoverished region inhabited largely by Hmong, an ethnic minority in Vietnam. Malnutrition is rampant in the area, and half the children suffer from its effects. Many also suffer from conditions such as softened bones, cleft palates, anemia, weakened heart muscle and a shortage of red blood cells.
Without care brought in by the 79-year-old pediatrician, many of the children would go without medical care and some would die.
“I’ve always tried to help, the need is so great,” Le said, speaking in Vietnamese with her niece, Anh Larson of Santa Rosa, translating.
A specialist in nutrition, Le counsels young mothers on proper feeding for their children. For its sickest patients, the program provides surgery at district hospitals or in Hanoi.
Le’s medical mission started 17 years ago as a clinic funded by Santa Rosa-based Veterans Resource Center of America, a nonprofit agency founded here in the mid-1970s to “heal the wounds of war,” said Peter Cameron, the organization’s executive director.
It cost about $4,600 to start up the Luong Son Clinic in 1997 and Anh Larson, the wife of Army veteran and now-retired credit union executive Jim Larson, was instrumental in recruiting her aunt as director.
Because villagers were walking miles to reach the clinic, it switched to a mobile outreach program in 2007 and Veterans Resource Center now supports it with about $22,300 a year — all in donated dollars.
Cameron, who served with the Army in Vietnam in 1966-67, said he had always wanted to help the people of Vietnam, as well as American military veterans, recover from the devastating war, won by the communist North Vietnamese in 1975.
“There was a whole lot we could do with a little bit of money,” he said of the clinic and three elementary schools built in Hoa Binh Province.
The indefatigable Dr. Le, one of 11 children from a prominent Hanoi family who became a pediatrician in 1960, keeps on making it happen.
Some of the villages have to be reached on foot, and “she’s always the first to get there,” Jim Larson said.
A diminutive, soft-spoken grandmother, Le walks 2 miles and does 90 minutes of tai chi exercise a day.
“Every year I ask her, ‘When are you going to retire,’ ” said Anh Larson, a Vietnamese who came to the U.S. in 1968. Her aunt’s answer: “This is my life’s dream. As long as I’m healthy, I will continue to do it.”
Vietnam, under a communist government, has rebounded considerably from the war. Hanoi, pounded by American B-52 bombers in December 1972, now has more than 100 skyscrapers over 330 feet tall and boasts both a growing middle class and a wealthy elite.
But the country has extreme economic inequity, with widespread poverty in rural areas, especially in the mountains where some villagers “live as if it were 100 years ago,” Anh Larson said.
The couple, who have visited Vietnam more than 20 times since the 1990s, said they have never encountered any animosity from the people, who “love Americans,” she said. Coca Cola and Nike are among the U.S. companies with factories in Vietnam.