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A Norwegian farm girl returns to her native Vietnam

Fri, Apr 18th, 2003
Posted in Features

A self-described Norwegian farm girl, Julie Knutson DeHart grew up in rural Lanesboro, the adopted daughter of Sharon and Robert Knutson. At Lanesboro High School, the 1992 graduate played in the band, went out for volleyball and ran track. She was a 4-Her for two years and grew up attending services with her family at Elstad Lutheran Church near Highland.I kept waiting for my eyes to turn blue and my hair to turn brown, Julie recalled, a big smile spreading across her very Asian face. She says that she knows the feeling of growing up a Twinkie - yellow on the outside and white on the inside - in homogenous rural Minnesota.Julie was 8 1/2 months old when she left her native Vietnam in 1974, an orphaned girl named To Ngoc Dung. Vietnamese names are presented last name first, then middle name, and first name last. When Dung (pronounced Yoom) left Providence Orphanage in Can Tho, her adoption papers described her as a healthy baby with a strong cry and no apparent abnormalities. The papers didnt say who her nautral parents were or the cirmstances surrounding her being orphaned. There was no mention of a war going on; Saigon would fall in April 1975. ***This past March, Julie, now 28, returned to Vietnam for the first time since being adopted by the Knutsons.A nurse at Franciscan Skemp in LaCrosse, Julie was one of 25 members of a medical mission sponsored by Children of Peace International (COPI), a non-profit organization that runs a number of orphanages and schools in Vietnam. Also a member of the team was Julies husband, David DeHart, a family physician with Franciscan Skemp in Prairie du Chien, where the couple live.Julie said she was not interested in going to Vietnam as a tourist, but when Dr. Lee Johnson at Francisican Kemp told her about the medical mission, she became enthused.When Dr. Johnson talked to me about Children of Peace International and the medical mission to Vietnam, I thought it would be a nice way to do some good and visit my native country at the same time.Each medical team member had to raise the necessary funds, about $2,400, to cover their expenses on the trip, which included airfare, hotels, and food.Before leaving for Vietnam, Julie wasnt even sure if there would be time to travel to Can Tho, some three hours south of Saigon (now known as Ho Chi Minh City), where her last connection to Vietnam had ended nearly 30 years ago. ***Beginning in Hanoi and travelling south, the team worked for more than two weeks running mobile clinics at the orphanages and schools run by COPI, as well as other sites in various communities. I was surprised at how hard we worked, Julie said, noting how exhausted the team members were at the end of the day. We would handle anywhere from 150 to 250 patients a day.The team brought with them medical supplies, antibiotics and other pharmaceuticals, many of them donated by Franciscan Skemp. Julie even brought with her 30 blankets knitted by the helpful hands of Elstad Lutheran parishioners, which she distributed to needy nurseries. In many of the orphanages, the team found a large number of children with physical abnormalities, including hydrocephalus. She said that many of the orphanages the group visited, including state-run centers, were understaffed and lacked resources. The medical mission included physicians, nurses, dentists and other medical personnel, as well as Vietnamese translators. We even had two clowns, who would entertain the children while they waited to be helped at the clinic, Julie said. The clowns were wonderful.The group worked in the Hanoi area for a few days before going to Ha Long Bay, a coastal area near Haiphong. There the group ran their clinic from a boat, with many of their patients coming to the clinic by sea.From north Vietnam, the team flew to Nha Tranh, a coastal city in central Vietnam. It was here that the group worked with patients from a leper colony. The medical mission ended in Saigon, where the group spent some time working in an HIV/AIDS clinic for children.***During her stay in Vietnam, Julie became a curiosity of sorts to the Vietnamese people she came in contact with who viewed her as one of their own, but soon learned in talking to her that she was wholly American. The people were really friendly, but were disappointed that I couldnt speak Vietnamese, Julie said. But the language barrier didnt prevent Julie from making friends and finding a new-found interest in her native country.I really loved the food, Julie exclaimed. And the people are so happy and friendly.On one of her few days off before returning to America, Julie made the journey to Can Tho. At Providence Orphanage she met a nun who had worked at the center when Julie was a baby. It was an emotional reunion of sorts for the American girl with Vietnamese ties. From the nun, Julie learned that the Vietnamese authorities had taken all of the records away, so Julie had no chance of learning more about her natural family.In all of her work over 17 days, working with children in orphanages and clinics throughout Vietnam, Julie couldnt help but think that she was the lucky one. I couldnt help but wonder, what would have happened to me if I hadnt been adopted, Julie said philosophically. I am really grateful to my mother and father.Julie hopes to return to Vietnam again one day. She was impressed with the work of COPI and plans on gathering supplies - toothbrushes, soaps and over the counter medicines - to send with other medical teams working in the country.In the end, the trip gave Julie some closure on being Vietnamese in America. Someday I will be able to tell my children about Vietnam, she said.

For more information about Children of Peace International go to www.childrenofpeace.org.

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