From Patient to Program Coordinator

A full-circle story: Lam Tran says fate has brought him back to Operation Smile so he can help others access the same kind of care he needed. Lam is the first guest of our “My Story” series.

By Brady Hishmeh, Student Programs Media Intern

As a senior in university looking to kickstart 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.

“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.

“In Operation Smile, we have a very meaningful slogan: ‘Changing lives, one smile at a time,'” Lam told us. “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,” Lam told us. “One surgery not only changes the smile but also changes someone’s life. … So, as a OS coordinator, I always try my best to help people like myself.”

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 with a cleft condition was his lack of confidence. Having to deal with bullies is pretty universal, something that almost kid every experiences. But for those 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 and jokes. 

The amazing thing about a cleft condition: 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, describing the impact of such care.

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 such a simple surgery can have on an individual. Focusing 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 the surgeries provide. When asked what he believes is his greatest achievement in life has been so far in life, 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.”

Fate is a philosophical ideal that many great minds have tackled and fallen short of deciphering. That being said, fate can mean different things to different people. Lam invoked this idea of fate, describing it as “a series of events which may seem to be separate fragments, but are actually connected.”

For Lam, he sees fate in his connection to Operation Smile.