Note: In 1998, I made fourteen major trips that included 30 countries. In that year I made three separate trips to Vietnam. In the next four blogs I want to lift out and share four short incidences that took place on just one of those Vietnam trips: April 22-30, 1998.
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam: April 1998: My first needs-assessment trip to Vietnam took place in October of 1996. Project C.U.R.E.’s involvement in Vietnam actually began two years prior to that date through our contact with Dr. Randy Robinson; his wife, Ginger; and their organization Face the Challenge. My October 1996 journal entries chronicle our partnership with Face the Challenge. We jointly went to Ho Chi Minh City (Old Saigon) and were part of the effort that resulted in over sixty surgeries being performed on kids and young residents of the Ho Chi Minh City area.
In many ways that trip greatly affected my life. Witnessing the talented surgical team using Project C.U.R.E.’s donated medical goods in the operating and recovery rooms indelibly underscored in my heart and mind the undeniable value of our mission to take medical supplies into developing countries around the world. The lives of the children and parents, who were so radically changed during that trip alone, merited all the combined efforts of Project C.U.R.E. over the past eleven years.
I was glad I had actually gone into the operating rooms and closely observed the restructuring of the little faces and bodies of the children. I was glad I had been present to see the tears and looks on the faces of the parents when their children were returned to them in the recovery rooms. The children, who had been so disfigured from birth, were handed back to anxious moms and dads, who were more often than not in shock when they saw the kids and realized for certain that their own flesh and blood had been given beauty and a second chance at living normal lives.
While thinking back on the 1996 trip, and at the same time anticipating my upcoming trip to Vietnam, I was struck by another startling realization. Life is precious. Life is short. The length of life is totally unpredictable. Our tendency is to begin to think about ourselves and our friends in terms of invincibility. We will always be here. Our friends will always be here. Drastic change is neither thinkable nor acceptable, especially while we are involved in doing “God’s work.” We will always be protected from harm, and our families are somehow guaranteed to never be subjected to grief or pain or loss resulting from our endeavors. That possibility just doesn’t occur to us, or if it does, it is instantly rejected by a good inoculation of denial. We simply get another shot of invincibility like the yellow fever or cholera shots we get before going into the African jungles.
But that ideal of invincibility is not always the way real life works. Bill LeTourneau worked closely with Face the Challenge and Dr. Randy Robinson. He was also my front man making all the necessary arrangements for the surgical trip in October of 1996.
Putting all the details in place necessitated that Bill travel to Vietnam many times before my departure for Ho Chi Minh City. Bill, who at the time was forty-one years old, had a natural talent for diplomacy and negotiating. In fact, it was Bill who helped me tag the right contacts in Ho Chi Minh City, which eventually produced meetings at the Vietnamese ministry of trade, where I proposed a working relationship between North Korea and Vietnam, with Project C.U.R.E. orchestrating the international countertrade of Vietnamese rice for North Korean iron ore to help keep the people of North Korea from starving to death. Bill sat in on those meetings with me in 1996.
Two weeks ago, Dr. Robinson’s group, Face the Challenge, returned to the hospitals of Old Saigon to once again perform cranio-maxillofacial surgeries on little kids. They are once again using Project C.U.R.E.’s medical supplies, which our staff sent to Ho Chi Minh City a few weeks ago.
Once again, Bill LeTourneau was in on the advance detail assignment to prepare for the surgeons and nurses, who would arrive later. Everything was properly set up with the local doctors, the hospitals, the hotels, and the shuttle buses. The parents of the children who would receive the reconstruction surgeries had been notified of the scheduled day the team would arrive. Because of my scheduled trip to Hanoi, I opted not to return to Ho Chi Minh City with the medical team.
During the days and often into the nights, the medical team performed their life-changing surgeries. But one morning Bill didn’t show for breakfast. At the age of forty-three, he had died alone in his room of a massive heart attack. Bill not only left his wife, Julie, and his two kids, Joseph and Jackie, but he also left a lot of us with hurting hearts and another opportunity to revisit our stubborn beliefs that our lives and endeavors on this earth are somehow invincible.
My prayer is that God will bring healing to our hearts and be especially near Julie and the children as they try to sort through the emotions and trauma of such an unexpected tragedy. I know today that heaven is richer because Bill is there, but I also know that we all feel a little pillaged today, and a whale of a lot more vulnerable.
© Dr. James W. Jackson
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