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From the Field Vietnam

From Patient to Program Coordinator

Our promise of improving health and dignity during the COVID-19 pandemic endures. We're helping front-line health workers stay safe, nourished and empowered to better serve their patients by providing life-saving supplies and equipment, as well as remote training to bolster their response. We’re also providing nutritional assistance, hygiene kits and virtual health services to support people and their health needs so they can thrive. If you can, when you can, help us keep our promise to care for children and create hope for tomorrow.

This story was written by Brady Hishmeh, Operation Smile Student Programs Media Intern.

As a senior in his university looking to kick-start his career right after graduation, Lam Tran devoted his time and focus to the job hunt. From checking postings to reading helpful guides and so much in between, it turns out Lam wouldn’t just find his career — he would find his calling. 

In a book titled “How Much Youth is Worth,” he discovered Operation Smile.

It was listed in a paragraph where the author shared the importance of Vietnam’s youth working for nonprofit organizations to better their communities. Eager to land a job and taking the suggestion from the book, he didn’t think twice about Operation Smile and quickly filed applications to several organizations in Vietnam.

Operation Smile was the first to respond — and that’s when he realized this wasn’t his first interaction with the organization. He read its name and stopped.

Lam Tran with Operation Smile Co-Founders Dr. Bill Magee and Kathy Magee. Photo courtesy Lam Tran.

“Oh wow,” Lam recalled thinking at the time. “I recognized the organization that brought me free surgery in the past.”

And when Lam arrived for his interview with Operation Smile Vietnam, the location’s program director Ms. Duc said, “Welcome back, Lam.”

With his important perspective and drive to help others, Lam’s story seems to have come full circle as he’s now helping Operation Smile’s patients receive the same kind of care he did, and from the same organization.

Photo courtesy of Lam Tran.

“In Operation Smile, we have a very meaningful slogan: ‘Changing lives, one smile at a time,'” Lam said. 

“That’s true for me. This mission at Vietnam Cuba (hospital) changed my lips, my nose and also my face. I understand (patients’) feelings, their inferiority, and I know the advance they get when they’re more confident. One surgery not only changes the smile but also changes someone’s life. So, as an Operation Smile coordinator, I always try my best to help people like myself.”

Photo courtesy of Lam Tran.

Born with a cleft condition in Thai Binh, Vietnam, a small province south of Hanoi, Lam said his greatest challenge growing up as a child living with cleft was his lack of confidence.

Having to deal with bullies is pretty universal, something that almost every child experiences. But for children with cleft conditions, it can serve as a constant reminder that there’s something separating yourself from your peers. It’s an easy target for jibes, jokes and painful stigma. 

The amazing thing about a cleft condition is that it can be repaired. Lam’s had three surgeries, repairing his lip and nose. 

“Since then, I’m more confident, more ‘normal,’ and I don’t see myself as a cleft boy anymore. I’m really able to be myself and do my own things,” Lam said.

Photo courtesy of Lam Tran.

Having returned to Operation Smile, though in a different role, Lam realized the importance of his work.

“Running a mission, doing coordinator work, helping the kids, everything seemed to tell me, ‘Lam, this is the mission of your life.’”

Lam is a living example of the impact surgery can have on an individual.

Focusing on his career as a program coordinator allows Lam the ability to help lift children from the uncertainty of life with a cleft condition into the reality of confidence, strength and self-assuredness that surgery provides.

When asked what he believes is his greatest achievement in life has been so far, he responded: “I haven’t achieved my greatest goal so far, I’m still on my way to there: Help as many kids as possible.”

Photo courtesy of Lam Tran.


It takes as little as $240 and as few as 45 minutes to provide life-changing surgery and a bright, beautiful new smile to a waiting child.