Care beyond borders: Return to Vietnam a healing visit

“Over the years while I was in practice I was always wanting to get back to Vietnam,” Carl Bartecchi said. “I kept looking for opportunities to get back.”

AURORA | Carl Bartecchi might be the only science luminary who can go to work wearing a pinstriped suit and purple tie adorned with dozens of darling cartoon sheep.

It’s easy to see why. As Bartecchi steps out of a lecture at the The Fulginiti Pavilion for Bioethics and Humanities, it’s clear that he’s revered and idolized by his colleagues. People hug him, wave and smile at him, and rave about his latest philanthropic effort in mid-October that resulted in 50 tons of donated medical equipment being donated to a hospital in Vietnam.

Professor Carl Bartecchi is a clinical professor of medicine at the University of Colorado School of Medicine who founded the Bach Mai Hospital Project. In mid-October, Bartecchi raised about $300,000 to transport 50 tons of donated medical equipment by airplane to a hospital in Vietnam. (Marla R. Keown/Aurora Sentinel)

And that’s only the latest of his efforts to help improve the country’s health care services by focusing on advancing academic medical care at the Bach Mai Hospital in the capital city of Hanoi.

“The goal is to make the Bach Mai Hospital a major teaching center of southeast Asia,” said Bartecchi, clinical professor of medicine at the University of Colorado School of Medicine.

So far, he’s made an enormous impact in the way health care is delivered in Vietnam during the past 15 years.

Bartecchi grew up in Scranton, Penn. and graduated with a medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania before beginning an internship at the Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, Mich., in 1964.

At the end of that year, he was drafted by the military to serve in the Vietnam War, but his medical experience saved him from being tapped for an infantry position. Instead, he was employed by the military as a flight surgeon and worked aboard ambulance helicopters.

He returned back to the states in 1966 to train future flight surgeons, and he finished his residency training in internal medicine shortly afterwards. All the while, controversy surrounding the Vietnam War had intensified.

“As time went on, the Pentagon Papers came out and I realized that we made a mistake and we shouldn’t have been there,” Bartecchi said.

Bartecchi carried on with his medical career over the next decade. He opened a clinic in Pueblo where he practiced as a physician, and he joined the faculty at the University of Colorado School of Medicine in 1975. But one thought continued to nag him.

“Over the years while I was in practice I was always wanting to get back to Vietnam,” he said. “I kept looking for opportunities to get back.”

Finally, his opportunity came in 1997. Shortly after the country re-opened its borders to Westerners, Bartecchi returned as a visiting professor.

He toured the Bach Mai Hospital, a 2,000-bed, 3,000-patient government hospital for the poor, and realized that doctors were lacking in skills and resources to treat patients for a variety of conditions including bird flu, malaria, Dengue fever and snake bites.

“When I first got there, they were way behind in academic situations, equipment and textbooks,” he said. The doctors were referring to medical textbooks (mostly in the form of Xerox copies) that were nearly a decade old, and the programs that were being taught at the medical school were outdated.

He launched the Bach Mai Hospital Project with the hope that American medical professionals and medical companies would be able to donate time and money to the hospital. By 1999, his effort to improve the hospital peaked the interest of his colleagues. He scored grants to purchase new ventilators that were vital in keeping patients alive, especially those afflicted with snake bites. In 2002, Bartecchi was awarded money from Catholic Health Initiatives, the umbrella group for Centura Health, that he used to bring Vietnamese doctors to the United States for a special type of training.

“My thought was to bring them to the U.S. in small numbers and train them here as teachers, and then send them back as teachers,” Bartecchi said. When the Vietnamese doctors returned to their home country, they relayed skills and medical wisdom to doctors in rural village hospitals so they could take better care of those patients.

In total, Bartecchi and his colleagues trained 30 medical professionals from Vietnam, including two nurses, at a cost of about $20,000 per person. He has also secured more than $1 million in donated medical equipment for the Vietnamese hospital over the past five years.

For Bartecchi, seeing the smiles on the faces of both patients and doctors at the Bach Mai Hospital, is reward enough for his efforts.

“A lot of us who go there feel like we owe something to the Vietnamese,” Bartecchi said. “This is our way of paying back a little bit.”

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