By Vivian Nguyen
Northwest Asian Weekly
In 1994, it was a just a chance flyer from Group Health that encouraged LaRelle Catherman to go on a research and medical trip to Hue, Vietnam. Influenced by her work as a nurse and her graduate studies on health care systems, she decided that the trip would broaden her knowledge in international health care.
Inspired by the people she met, Catherman wanted to make an impact on improving health care in Vietnam. After meeting one of the hospital administrators she met in Hue, he encouraged her to research why local children in central Vietnam were dying of diarrhea. This propelled Catherman’s husband Robert to become involved with the project by leading investigations for creating clean water in Vietnam. The Cathermans decided to launch the nonprofit organization, Medical Educational and Development of Resources through International Exchange (MEDRIX), in order to increase access to clean water for people living in the rural areas of central Vietnam. They also wanted to provide clean water for Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam’s capital.
Bolstered by partnerships with Vietnamese government agencies as well as the aid of American contracted partners and volunteers, MEDRIX began to send volunteer teams to central Vietnam to develop well drilling and water treatment projects.
However, the teams discovered that despite their best efforts to provide accessible water, their open well projects were still contaminated with bacteria. After gaining more experience in their work, MEDRIX teams realized that providing a higher quality of water was most essential to the communities.
“We determined that the problem was not the quantity of water, but the quality of water,” said Robert Catherman. MEDRIX redirected its focus to using UV treatment of water for its affordability, speed, and practicality due to the country’s natural resources.
“Vietnam is unique as a developing country in that it has a fairly extensive electrical grid,” said Catherman. “That makes UV treatment of water an easy option to pursue as 95 percent of the homes have access to electricity.”
MEDRIX found that the most effective places to create water systems were in schools and health clinics because both venues have a high concentration of people. After implementing UV treatment of water, MEDRIX saw a significant improvement in the health of local people, particularly in children. On top of water projects, the Cathermans hoped to find additional ways to provide sustainable improvement of health care in Vietnam.
“We try to have sustainable projects,” said LaRelle Catherman. With the help of office staff in Vietnam and government organizations with access to local people, MEDRIX also provides classes for locals taught by other locals in order to educate them on proper health care.
“Our classes are taught by the Vietnamese who live there — who have the language, current idioms, and knowledge of the community, and can address those issues. Whereas teams from America can do good work and research on isolated trips, the sustainability of that over the years 24/7 is what we’re looking for … and we can’t do that without the help of local people.”
In order to promote sustainability, MEDRIX uses its American partners to bring over doctors who can train local Vietnamese doctors to perform surgeries. By giving Vietnamese doctors the resources and education to perform surgeries, it enables the local community to sustain MEDRIX’s efforts over a long period of time.
Projects for MEDRIX, such as water systems, educational classes, and heart surgeries for qualified children in need, are also made possible through the generous aid of anonymous American donors.
“It costs about $250 to put a system into a school and to operate that system for a year,” said Robert Catherman. “In regards to cost per pupil, that comes out to a fairly low price over the year. It’s not an unreasonable amount for a family to reach out and donate to have an impact on that many people.”
Although the Cathermans’ efforts founded MEDRIX, they are quick to emphasize that the organization is truly about the other people involved, such as the American and Vietnamese doctors and volunteers, as well as the people they help.
“We have a lot of opportunities here in America and I truly feel that when we’ve been given a lot, we need to give back,” said LaRelle Catherman. “It’s both our privilege and responsibility to give back to the world community.” ♦
For more information, visit www.medrix.org.
Vivian Nguyen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.