By Linda Nguyen
When I began medical school, I signed up to volunteer with Veteran Health Partners (VHP), an organization that pairs medical students with veterans in the Recreational Control Facility (RCF) of the local Veteran Affairs (VA) Hospital. Veterans in the RCF unit have conditions ranging from spinal cord injuries to paraplegia, many of whom live there as long-term residents. As a Vietnamese-American daughter of refugees from the Vietnam War, I owed it to myself to get to know some of the honorable veterans who served.
I was paired with a veteran who did not participate in any group activities or get out of bed most days. When I arrived at the VA to visit him for the first time, I was nervous. Would he find any interest in talking to a medical student? I took a deep breath, then knocked on his door.
“Hello sir! This is Linda, your student volunteer,” I said.
“Come in.” he said.
I walked in slowly, just enough to peek past the curtain and see the veteran sitting in the hospital bed. He had white hair, wore glasses, and seemed to be in his eighties. He smiled warmly and attempted to turn down the volume of the TV screen. I asked if I could help, and he said that he could turn it down himself. We shook hands and I pulled over a chair to sit facing him.
He started off the conversation by saying, “So tell me about yourself.”
I replied, “I’m a first-year medical student who moved here last year from California. In my free time, I love hip hop dance and cooking.”
He thought that my educational path and hobbies were wonderful. He then apologized for not being able to fully face me or turn down the TV volume. I assured him that it did not bother me. He shyly remarked how sometimes it is hard for him to remember the exact word he wants to say. I encouraged him that he could try to describe whatever word he was trying to say, and that I would do my best to listen and understand. This alleviated some of his apprehension, as I saw him relax and feel more comfortable around me.
Eventually, the nurse peeked his head into the room to say that visiting time was over. As I was leaving, I smiled to myself and thought, “I think I made a new friend today.”
Our monthly visits continued, and eventually we gave each other permission to ask anything we wanted about the other person. I was curious to hear about his experience serving in the Vietnam War. I learned that he was traumatized by many of his experiences during his service. I was the first Vietnamese person he had interacted with since the war.
I told him about my own family, that my parents had to flee the country to ensure a better future for their children. They are eternally grateful to veterans who fought in the Vietnam War, and see them as heroes. He listened to my story intently. Afterwards, we both looked at each other in silent agreement, in awe that decades later, a veteran was becoming friends with a Vietnamese-American.
This has been a meaningful year for me with VHP, transitioning from a member to a president role. As we near student organization board transitions, I am proud of the work that my board and I accomplished this year to improve the operations of VHP and make this a more positive and rewarding experience for both the veteran partners and medical student volunteers. Even as I took on this leadership role, I maintained my monthly visits to my paired veteran partner.
The most rewarding part of volunteering this year was being able to meet his entire family during Christmas. It warmed my heart dearly to hear how much his family valued my visits with my veteran partner, and how excited they were to meet me. My veteran partner invited me to stay and watch the family exchange gifts, and I offered to take photographs of the family for their family photoshoot. I felt so welcome. My veteran partner went so far as to call me an “honorary” family member.
I still visit my veteran partner every month and will continue to do so. I think the most important lesson I have learned while volunteering with VHP is reminding myself that sometimes the most meaningful service that you can do is listen to someone. Make them feel heard. That their needs and wishes matter. I saw the impact it made when I was mindful about what it was my veteran was concerned with at the time, whether it be the ability to turn the pages while reading books, getting to step out of bed, speak, etc. I am lucky to be a part of whatever sparks joy in a patient that day.
Linda Nguyen, MA, is an aspiring physician-bioethicist, currently pursuing an MD at Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine. She currently conducts clinical research on advance care planning and has a background in education, student affairs, and diversity and inclusion work.