A Cancer Doctor’s Journey to Vietnam

Cindy Lange-Kubick

Dr. Cynthia Osborne (left), Dr. John Pippen, Dr. Tia, Dr. Nate Green, Dr. Claude Denham and Dr. Nguyen Van Cau pose at a cancer clinic in Vietnam. (Courtesy photo)The chemo rooms were painted sky blue and outside each doorway—in a long open-air corridor—families cooked for the sick, smells of home rising in the steamy Southeast Asian air.

Six beds in each narrow room, two patients in each bed.

Head to foot, says Nate Green (’93), an oncologist at Southeast Nebraska Cancer Center, just off O Street in East Lincoln.

Bathrooms? Down the hall.

Green flew to Vietnam in late February. To a hospital in a city of 700,000 in the center of that impoverished country.

It changed his life.Vietnam Exam Room

The father of three saw cases he would never see here. Like a woman in her 20s with cancer so advanced a tumor had taken over her breast tissue and more tumors were growing in her neck and arms.

“She lived in a remote village and was very poor,” explained Green, 41, who grew up in Scottsbluff and came to Nebraska Wesleyan University as an undergraduate.

Other patients arrived in similar shape, he said, traveling for hours to see what doctors could do to help them.

“It was very staggering to see.”

And an opportunity Green had been searching for.

Last September, John Pippen, a mentor from Green’s fellowship days at Baylor, called to present the possibility.

“I couldn’t wait to go,” said Green.Vietnam Rounds

After months of organizing, four doctors and one nurse spent two weeks teaching and learning at the Hue Medical College and Pharmacy in the city of Hue.

Doctors and dentists and nurses have been traveling to developing countries for years. They fix teeth and set bones and treat children and families. But few oncologists have been among them.

“Our field requires so much technology,” Green said. “We can’t just pack a bag of tools and make a meaningful contribution.”

But they can teach.

Their trip was organized by Health Volunteers Overseas, a nonprofit founded in 1986 with this mission: To improve global health through education.

The education went both ways.

Green discovered that the local doctors had much of the same technology—and medications—that American doctors do.

“But financially, the access is terrible.”

Insurance is government-run and premiums are a pittance, but patients pay 80 percent of their medical costs out-of-pocket.

That means little preventative care, said Green. And the best drugs, even though available, aren’t used because of the cost.

For a healthier Vietnam

Dr. Green isn’t the only one with NWU ties in the health care field to make a recent service trip to Vietnam. Read about Assistant Professor of Nursing Linda Hardy’s trip to Ho Chi Minh City and see photos on her blog at hardysnursesnotes.blogspot.com.

Green and his group followed and advised medical students during rounds in the hospital and saw patients in the afternoon.

After that, they lectured to students about pain management and hospice—unavailable in Vietnam—and American methods for treating some of the cancers common to the country, like stomach and liver cancer.

Since all chemotherapy is inpatient—explaining the crowded hospital rooms—Green and the others spent some time explaining the American system, affording them a way to treat more patients.

It’s hard to say what the cancer survival rates are in Vietnam, he said. Record keeping is poor.

But he could say this about the doctors and medical students: “I was very impressed.”

Green has kept in contact with one of those doctors—a man about his age with two young children. A man just as interested in helping cancer patients as he is.

“Dr. Green is very friendly, enthusiastic and helpful,” Dr. Nguyen Van Cau wrote in an email. “We are hoping (he) comes back again.”

The American doctors talked about their trip—and the beautiful city they explored—as they waited for the flight that would take them back to the United States.

Back in the U.S., Green spoke in his office. A waiting room slowly filled with patients around the corner. “We were all saying, ‘When can we go back?’”

This article first appeared in the April 5, 2012, issue of the Lincoln Journal Star.