Erik Happ scrolled through photos on a computer, sharing images of Vietnamese mothers doing laundry in a dirty river, patients before and after eye surgeries, fresh seafood in bins at outdoor markets, and fellow doctors donning team gear during a January mission.
He took his surgical skills and Steelers spirit with him during a 10-day trip to Vietnam, treating patients at Hue Central Hospital.
But the expertise he took to Vietnam doesn't compare to the life lessons he brought back, he said.
“Some images stay with you,” he said.
“The people there get through life with little food, little comfort and without things like heating and cooling. Those are all things many of us take for granted here,” he said.
Describing the Vietnamese as “hearty” and “used to endurance,” he remembered a 7-year-old girl, “who was so small she looked like she was 4,” who wore a patch over one eye. He kept seeing her around the hospital during the days leading up to when he would repair a botched job on a previously torn eyelid that was obstructing her vision.
“It was a tough case. I have a 7-year-old,” he said.
Happ and his wife Carolyn, a radiologist at St. Clair Hospital, live with their three children Abby, 11, Alex, 8, and Andrew, 7, in the new Fox Chase IV development in Upper St. Clair.
An ophthalmologist at Allegheny General Hospital, Happ specializes in oculoplastics--a small sub speciality that includes reconstruction and plastic surgery to the eye.
When a friend, who works with Wisconsin nonprofit AmeriNam Healing Inc., asked him to volunteer his medical services in Vietnam, Happ said he jumped at the opportunity.
“I believe if you have a lot, you should give a lot,” he said.
Without the comfort of top-notch equipment found in most United States hospitals or full anesthesia offerings for patients, Happ repaired eyelid lacerations and orbital trauma, removed tumors, removed drooping eyelid skin that was blocking vision, unblocked tear ducts, repaired previous surgeries and performed reconstructive surgery.
But he couldn’t stop thinking about that 7-year-old patient.
“Where would she be in 10 years? Where would my kids be in 10 years?
“People there are not that different than people here. We all want to smile and be happy. We all want a roof over our heads. We’re all human. It’s becoming more apparent the older I get and more life experience I gain that we’re all fighting to live. Some of us get lucky and are born into good families in developed countries, and others struggle to survive by the Saigon River,” he said.
So he thought of a way to make a young child smile, went to a store near his hotel room and bought her Hello Kitty gifts, a box of crayons, something to commemorate the Vietnamese New Year and some candy.
He was excited to deliver it the next day and said he felt a little disappointed when his gifts were met with a rather stoic reaction.
“Still, I knew I did the best I could for her,” he said, referring to her newfound vision.
While he was packing up his equipment during his last day at the hospital, she kept sticking her head out of a hospital room before she finally ran down the hall to hug his leg.
“It was like a movie moment,” he said.
It’s a moment that is cemented in his memory.
“You feel like you were able to add some sunshine in a little kid’s life,” Happ said.
And for him, the experience helped redefine the doctor-patient relationship.
“There were no insurance companies, no forms to fill out. It was just about healing people,” he said.
Though he thinks he will always remember that patient, his profession has taught him “how to put things down,” he said. Along with his upbringing, his resume has also inspired a passion for traveling.
Happ graduated from Fox Chapel High School in 1988. He moved to California with his father Richard, who is a gastrointestinal surgeon, where he studied pre-med at the University of California-San Diego. Following that, he then attended Hanehann Medical School in Philadelphia, now part of Drexel University.
Watching his mother Brenda struggle with multiple sclerosis, from the time he was in second grade until the time she died during his senior year in high school, was a big influence in him wanting to pursue a career in medicine, he said.
It also taught him to be independent and able to learn quickly--character attributes that would prove valuable during his four years a flight surgeon with the U.S. Air Force.
The servicemen and women he met during his work with the military were similar to the people of Vietnam in some ways, he said.
“They’re underpaid, underappreciated people,” Happ said.
He said he is constantly impressed and inspired by those who dedicate themselves to a life of service.
Happ should count himself among such a crowd that includes inspiring doctors who serve the global community, according to Stephanie Waite, spokeswoman for Allegheny General Hospital.
She said he is among other physicians who have reached out to other parts of the world, including several AGH doctors who gave their time and expertise in Haiti after an earthquake ravaged Port-au-Prince last year.
“We very much applaud Dr. Happ’s work in continuing this tradition of giving back,” she said.