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Making a Difference to Transform Lives

Project DOVE (Duke-NUS Overseas Volunteering Expedition), is a student-led overseas medical mission that has been providing sustainable medical care and health education to underserved communities in neighbouring countries since 2010. The Project DOVE team, made up of 20 medical students and guided by four Faculty from SingHealth and Duke-NUS, embarked on a trip from 6 to 12 April 2018 to reach out to Quang Tri province in Vietnam. With more than four days of medical clinics and one day of healthcare education, the team served about 600 patients from four different communities.

Dr Cristelle Chow, SingHealth Paediatrics Residency Alumna, was one of the SingHealth Core Faculty who embarked on Project Dove. She fills us in on her interesting encounter with locals in Vietnam, and shares some of the biggest misconceptions volunteers may have when going on such mission trips.

This is your second time participating in Project Dove. Tell us about your mission trip to Vietnam, and what you have learnt.

The trip to Vietnam was a meaningful and humbling one. I facilitated the learning of the Duke-NUS Medical School students, allowing them to appreciate the cultural differences, and to provide health education and support to an underserved, yet generous and appreciative population of adults and children.


What was your favourite memory of Vietnam?

We met this resilient 92-year-old man who left a deep impression in me. He showed us his battle wounds and told us stories about the Vietnam War. I learnt about his experience, his sadness, but most importantly, his willingness to forgive.

Tell us about the people whom you have met and worked with on this trip.

Our Duke-NUS students in Quang Tri were an enthusiastic and hardworking bunch, dedicated to learning and serving others. The organising committee from Project DOVE demonstrated firm leadership, but was also flexible in its arrangements and was always ready to accommodate changes in schedule and challenges along the way. The patients we worked with were full of hope and optimism about our visit—and while there were times that the team was extremely fatigued after seeing a large number of people, the patients were still grateful for what we had to offer and never ceased to express their appreciation.

I was very encouraged and inspired by some of the patients' personal stories. Their resilience despite their personal challenges, and their forgiveness towards others despite the pain and suffering inflicted upon them during the war, deeply inspired me.

What challenges did you face during the mission trip, and how did you overcome them?

Fatigue! Seeing a couple of hundred patients a day was exhausting, but at the same time, focusing on how we could make a difference in their lives, in whatever small way, helped us overcome the exhaustion. Our patients were also inspirational in their stories of hope and forgiveness, which kept our spirits up.


What are some common misconceptions about participating in mission trips?

The biggest misconception is that one can change the world by going on a mission trip. The fact is that medications can only do so much. Think about the hypertensive elderly gentleman you are giving a beta-blocker to. What happens after that one month's supply? Or the child you give a bottle of multivitamins to—will she put on weight and be free from diarrheal diseases?

What matters more is the compassion and listening ear that you can provide the patients, the touch of the stethoscope on their chest, or the long pause in that conversation about end-of-life. Health education, anticipatory guidance, and simply just time, makes a mission trip worthwhile—not many people can get cured, but many can experience healing.

And of course, we should not forget that there is also a lot of work that can be done here, in Singapore, to help our fellow countrymen in difficult circumstances. Making a difference does not always have to be beyond our shores.


Any tips on health, safety and travel for medical students or Residents before they embark on a mission trip?

It is important to get the recommended vaccinations or malaria prophylaxis before your trip, and not take your own health for granted. Before you leave, ensure that you have adequate rest and are feeling healthy. Learn basic first aid—you never know when you will need it more than the patients! And on a lighter note, learn about the country you are visiting, including the language, culture and, yes of course, the food.

What are three key questions medical students or Residents should ask themselves if they are interested to organise mission trips?

  1. Why do you want to organise this mission trip? What is your motivation? "Helping people" does not cut it! 
  2. Are you ready to go on a mission trip? It is physically exhausting, needs a lot of time and effort for planning, fund-raising and logistics. You need to decide if you can commit to this cause at this stage in your training or career. 
  3. Who do you want to have on that mission trip? In your planning, think about the kind of clinical skills and competencies that you would require of your participants. You will need to ensure that you have personnel who have the right competencies to provide appropriate medical services to the population you are serving.