‘As a Heart Surgeon, This Is a Dream Come True’

DR. BUI DUC PHU, Director of Hue Central Hospital
DR. BUI DUC PHU, Director of Hue Central Hospital

Mr. Chuck Feeney loves central Viet Nam. He came to our region for one reason: He wanted to help. The northern half has Ha Noi, the capital of Viet Nam and the political center of the country. The southern half has Ho Chi Minh City, the economic center of the country, demonstrating the strong growth of Viet Nam in the north and south. Meanwhile, our region has typhoons and droughts, the worst of the war, the worst of the developing economy. No industry, no agricultural base. We faced myriad difficulties, but Mr. Chuck saw potential in Central Region cities like Hue and Da Nang.

I remember well the first time I met him. He and a delegate from the East Meets West Foundation visited our pediatrics department at the hospital and told us they were interested in helping us provide care to children with congenital cardiac disease. Before that, I did not even know who he was. I just knew that he was a gentleman who had very bright and attractive eyes, in casual clothes. He asked me: “What do you need to do your job better?” I told him we were providing good care in a deteriorating 50-year-old structure. He asked me how much a new building would cost. I hesitated before answering. I was nervous.

I made a quick calculation based on the size of the existing building and construction costs at the time—about $1 million. He nodded in agreement and asked how long construction would take. Two or three years? He said he would come back in one year to check on the progress and said if we were on schedule, he would help us build other facilities. That was our first meeting and I had the great honor to talk to a famous man with power, generosity and kindness—Mr. Chuck. It was the beginning of a 15-year relationship.

He came back—exactly a year later, as promised—and saw our building under construction. We began to discuss the next big project, a cardiovascular center. It was my dream as a heart surgeon. This was a meaningful turning point in the development of the hospital, a move that motivated people to believe in the future.

After six years in operation, the cardiovascular center is a great success. Our most significant achievement was conducting Viet Nam’s first heart transplant solely with Vietnamese staff. The real benefit of this crowning achievement is similar to a pyramid: The peak is only possible because of the solid base, which in our case is the solid performance of our hospital staff in every department. For a developing nation like Viet Nam, that’s important, both tangibly and symbolically.

Here, we are not only treating patients, but also training health personnel—physicians, nurses and aides—who later provide services throughout the country. It takes time, capacity, a standardized training system and a state-of- the-art facility to acquire in-depth specialization in cardiology. We have trained a generation of experts who can then train future generations. Even Ha Noi and Ho Chi Minh City send teams to our hospital to learn from our model. As a heart surgeon, this is a dream come true.

Mr. Chuck came back to Viet Nam after seeing the destruction caused by the tsunami in Phuket, Thailand. He had pain in his leg caused by gout, but we went together to visit the hospital’s facilities (donated by Atlantic). His eyes glittered with happiness when he saw so many children being cared for in perfect conditions. I told him that we, the patients and Vietnamese people, expected to do something to express our gratitude. He said the honor should be given to the medical staff at Hue Central Hospital, whose efforts were helping cure patients. He just wished to continue working with me to further improve working conditions. And so, the Center for Medical Training and Ophthalmology was built.

Atlantic started its work in hospitals like ours, then looked at the whole system and began addressing public health training and practices, and primary health care reforms. Thua Thien Hue and Khanh Hoa Provinces are examples of the tremendous change in primary health care. They provide models for expanding high-quality, essential primary health care services to all the people of Viet Nam.

This work is nation-building at its best. And we have Mr. Chuck Feeney and Atlantic to thank for it.


Director of Hue Central Hospital
Director of Cardiovascular Center & Medical Training Center
President of Vietnam Association of Thoracic & Cardiovascular Surgery