Audiologist, Katrina Skirka, from the iHear New Lambton clinic, travelled to Vietnam in February, to help treat more than 1,600 locals in desperate need of better hearing health. Katrina was part of a multi-skilled Starkey Hearing Foundation (SHF) team, made up of clinicians and volunteers from the Australia-Pacific region. Vietnamese SHF members welcomed the group, ready to guide the visitors safely throughout the country.
For Katrina, her arrival in Vietnam and first stop Hanoi was a huge culture shock compared to life in Australia.
“I drank the sights in! With pollution masks on their faces, whole families with babies and small children travel on the one motorbike, smartly-dressed women in high heels and skirts on bikes, a florist shop on a bike, a street food shop on a bike, huge cardboard boxes loaded strategically on bikes, the family groceries, tradies with their tools on bikes. There was a faint smell of burning rubber in the air. The only road rule I could figure out was to honk upon approaching,” Katrina laughed.
Once at the first mission site, Hanoi’s An Viet Hospital, the team began setting up and training their volunteers. Katrina and a fellow audiologist, Michael, were tasked with screening people with otoscopes as they came in, noting what they saw in a code form by marking patients’ hands with texta.
“There is no denial of hearing loss in Vietnam; they simply arrive en masse for help. I found myself mid-foyer with the crowd all at once tapping me on the arm and pointing to their ears. Fearing we would literally drown in the crowd, our mission leader, Megan, promptly stepped in to take control,” Katrina said.
“I attended to a 100-year-old frail lady, half my size, suffering massive eardrum perforations. We sat her on the ground floor, as the stairs were impractical for her.”
With rivers of sweat trickling down their faces, the team braved the heat that first day to take ear impressions for 337 patients in the tiny Hanoi hospital.
“Throughout all of my mission days in Vietnam I was impressed by the calm, brave, trusting, stoic and accepting nature of the Vietnamese,” said Katrina, explaining that for many of these patients, it is the first time they have ever sought medical treatment.
“I saw it on the faces of the wide-eyed little children who wandered silently into the clinic room alone to have their impressions taken. Little children of primary school age with no speech. I saw it on the faces of the adults in pain, with no eardrums. I saw it in the well-behaved, silent wall-to-wall crowds waiting patiently without complaint for often long periods for our services.”
It was then on to Danang’s ‘Village of Hope’. While setting up, laughing little children darted about everywhere, and a very elderly frail lady wandered in, a day early, hoping to be seen.
“When she opened her mouth there looked to be blood oozing from it, but was told she was just chewing betel nut! This lady received individual prompt service from about 10 of our staff, who were just fascinated by her story!”
On the last day of the mission in Ho Chi Minh City, the team saw nearly 600 patients, mostly children, and had literally exhausted their supplies of impression material due to the demand. The remaining few rows of patients calmly accepted they would instead be fitted with stock moulds.
“These peaceful people were just grateful to be helped, and it was our absolute privilege and honour to be the people helping them.”
Katrina says the whole mission team agreed it was the hardest they had ever worked, with many bodies aching “like never before” at the end of each day.
“On mission days your mind goes into another mode, we came to do a job, and we are here to serve these people, so we happily put their needs above our own. The Vietnamese have taught me the importance of kindness, generosity, not sweating the small stuff, and to be grateful for the privileged lives we lead. Our legacy is the lives we touch in this lifetime, and it would be my privilege to return someday to these wonderful people.”
Katrina is now looking forward to Phase Two of the Starkey Hearing Foundation mission, where the team will see the same children and adults again, this time to fit them with free hearing aids, allowing them to develop speech and improve their education.