Disclaimer: this blog post is 4-pages single spaced with no pictures. I understand if you don’t want to read that much (maybe save it for some bedtime reading), but know that Myanmar was great and God is great. The team worked really hard and the rough travel and the sickness were worth helping the thousands of patients that received care.
For the day-by-day replay of the entire medical trip, check out my dad’s blog at www.markchinmd.wordpress.com.
Myitwa Village (MM 2-5)
From February 25-28, the FCBC medical team served at the Myitwa village in the Zalun Township area. Our target zone consisted of 10 villages with a population of about 2,500 – 3,000.
We left Yangon at 4:30 am on February 25 and drove on a half-paved road for 3.5 hours in a charter bus, where we were greeted by the town of Zalun and the camera crew of a local television station. It wasn’t a quick interview with a presidential departure; the camera crew accompanied us to the village and tracked our every move (one of our American-Burmese team members, Trevour, is trying to acquire the taping). Zalun was a transfer point and we caught our half-hour boat ride to pick up our ox cart rides! The boat approach was something from other time and we could see the line of rustling oxen and their drivers waiting on the cliff above the shore. Sure, it is just an ox cart, but in its primitive nature, it is also the main, traditional and modern way that certain Burmese travel and transport. Each cart held about 3-4 people and took us along a bumpy, dusty, crazy and incredible ride. It took us about forty-five minutes to travel 1.7 miles. The ox carts were just another leg until we arrived at another transport spot and crossed a small lake about a half-mile to the entrance of the Myitwa village.
After we landed ashore, we walked along for another half-mile of the main road, which was dirt road and a 3-foot cement-raised path (useful during flooding season), to a middle school, where we would be holding our medical clinics for three days. Compared to some areas in Yangon, it wouldn’t be so bad to live in the Myitwa village. The multi-family teak houses looked firmly built and well kept, unlike some of the decaying squatter buildings and scrap-made shack-homes in Myanmar or Thailand. — The long day of travel was hard for everyone, but we couldn’t let our guards down just yet. Upon our arrival, there were at least 500 patients waiting for us under the bamboo canopy.
The next three days was unexpected and unbelievable.
The Burmese people of Myitwa had never seen a foreigner, let alone medical services or a doctor of any kind, but they knew what hurt and what wasn’t supposed to be in their body. A person should be able to see from their eyes, pain shouldn’t be in the mouth where one eats or a lumpy bump shouldn’t be protruding from the head, shoulder, breast or leg.
The four dental, optical, medical and pharmacy clinics set up shop in their respective spaces and the Burmese nurses helped triage the patients. In theory, this would have been really helpful, which it did with, but with minimal results. While it eliminated additional time translating, it was less useful because of various situations: some patients wanted to be seen at multiple clinics, more people wanted to see a medical doctor, leaders wanted and needed to limit the registration, while some wanted to register them all. It was somewhat stressful and caused a little bit of chaos, but in the end, it didn’t matter very much because at least everyone saw at least one doctor and we saw everyone that wanted to be seen.
The first day of clinics was a day of getting our bearings with the translators, for new members to see how the clinic works, learning to work with new members and to understand the flow of doctors and patients. It was a busy afternoon trying to get acclimated to the heat and to the needs of the patients, but there were some really great elements that made our afternoon and the next two days successful:
– We had good leadership.
– There were more optical team members, which decreased the wait time and increased the number of patients.
– We had 5 American doctors and 3 Burmese doctors helping the hundreds of medical patients.
– We had really great and patient translators! They were so fun and helpful.
– (We lost the use of the dental compressor, which limited dental cleanings and restorations to a lot of teeth pulling!)
At the end of every day, we were sticky and tired and happy. We were graciously fed dinner by a local cook and served by the teachers of the middle school and no one spoke English. They did their ultimate best to keep us full and comfortable and their generosity wasn’t limited to just making us meals. They offered to carry our bags, shined a light above our food when the generators when out, brought us extra waters, rubbed our backs when we were nauseated, offered massages and cleaned up after us. They were thankful that we were in their village helping their people, but we were so thankful to them for letting us come and keeping us faithful.
Our sleeping accommodations were the best as they could be in a village and we went camping in our bungalows (I, at least had a great time, minus the snoring…)! The men and women were housed separately, the men at the middle school and women at a guest house at the entrance of the village. We slept on mats and on our cool Klymit sleeping pads (Klymit heard about the purpose of trip and sold their pads to us at the wholesale rate! Thank you, Auntie Gail.), in a mosquito net tent, and in our homemade sleep sacks (thank you, Auntie Gail). For the women, we were packed wall-to-wall, but it was definitely doable since we were somewhat confined to out net tents. The big men had it good; they could roll in their sleep about four times before hitting anyone. What surprised me, and what we found to be a general pattern in the men and women camps, is that we have very happy snorers. I swear, more than half the team snores and even after a tiring day, the hymns of snoring men and women made it hard for a good night’s rest. Luckily, and despite the complaints and laughter, the days were perfectly well and good.
There were a lot of accommodations that the Myitwa village provided for us to make us feel at home. Prior to our arrival, they did not have the raised pathway, showers or western bathrooms or condiments like A1 sauce and ketchup. All the food was brought in from Yangon (since the Myitwa village is very poor [average living cost is $2] and they wanted us to eat well, although, I was ready to eat Burmese food) and all the western amenities were built for us. It was a lot of money and effort to bring and build for a team that would be in the village for only three days! While many things were new, it was still different, but it was better than squatty-potties and the baby wipes we prepared to clean ourselves with.
On the second day, we anticipated that there would be a lot of people, but we couldn’t have ever anticipated how many. The word had easily spread what was happening in Myitwa and people came. There were stories that people stayed overnight in the fields because they hadn’t been seen the first day or people had walked three hours to get to the clinics. There were over 1,500 people that came day and they layered themselves among the mats in the small waiting area. We could feel the heat of the hundreds of bodies and the aching need for healing and answers.
The optical and dental team did an outstanding job in Myitwa, working fast and attending to each patient’s concerns about their eyes and teeth. The dental team was in their groove and worked efficiently to attend to each patient. In the evening, Auntie Vicky (retired dentist) and Auntie Lynelle (hygienist) held an info meeting to teach basic teeth hygiene and care. Over 200 people attended. The optical team worked very hard throughout the two weeks, always the last team to finish, squeezing in as many patients as possible. The optical and medical groups had it the hardest because they often had to tell patients that they couldn’t do anything about their cataracts or that they couldn’t operate on the double cleft palette or help a girl that couldn’t walk. You don’t travel a great distance to say no to people, but you try your hardest.
The medical team was in its prime and was remarkable. The group consulted and diagnosed ailing patients and helped them understand their pain and provided physical or medical treatment. They’re a steady group, but often have the most down time, leaving the competition to the dental and optical groups. This year, they could barely get a break and they worked so hard until every patient was seen.
I was really proud of my dad and it was really neat to see him so passionate about his work. It has been a while since I have seen him in surgery and I had forgotten how dedicated he is. He’s performed surgeries on these trips before, but when I saw him remove an infected growth on a patient’s butt, cut out a golf ball-sized cyst from a 24-year olds head and give life to a boy’s webbed hands so he could work and get married, it was something to admire and respect.
With the surgeries, there were issues quantifying quality care. With the 1,000+ waiting patients, dad and another doctor’s time were being monopolized and they couldn’t see as many patients. So do you try to see as many patients as you can and give them at least some type of treatment or do you sacrifice time to those few patients that need a surgery or the extra care? — By late afternoon, the Sawyadaw (title for the monks) asked the medical team to stay and see the last couple of hundred patients registered for the day, which would take them later into the evening. The American doctors were hesitant, but some knew they couldn’t let the Burmese doctors work into the night by themselves and were reminded of their purpose in coming to Myitwa.
My mom and I stuck around that evening to watch and observe. Towards the end of the night, around 10 pm, I was taking pictures and printing them on my dad’s mobile printer for about 30+ people. I started out with the kids, who were so curious and patient. Then I started taking pictures of new mothers, because who wouldn’t want a picture with their baby? Then everyone that was left in the waiting area wanted their picture taken and printed, and I kept going. It got kind of crazy, but luckily, it was getting late and I told everyone I had to get to bed. It was a lot of fun to hang out and use photos to connect with people.
That leads to my job on the team — I was the designated pinch-hitter, helping out where ever there was a need and to also be the amateur-Steven-Chin and document our work in Burma (it is true that a photographer/videographer can only take so many pictures or can film so many minutes, but don’t be asking for my pictures later if you’re going to criticize). One of the best parts of taking pictures was showing people their photograph. I love taking candid pictures, but it’s always awkward, somewhat disrespectful and obvious when you’re shooting a fat lens into someone’s face and in some part, they have no idea what you’re doing to them. When I wanted to capture a shot, I showed the person their picture I took of them, and after, I tried to capture the moment of giggles that they looked at themselves, and maybe for the first time.
The team kept plowing through on day three. We were scheduled to leave Myitwa at 12 pm, but there was no way that was going to happen. When I saw how many people we had seen over the last two days, there was no way we were going to be able to cut it half a day and quickly dash away. We rescheduled to leave at 4 pm, but more like 5 pm because Dad was finishing another set of webbed fingers. Geeze louise, Daaaad (but seriously, my Dad is so cool). Most everything and everyone were packed by 3 pm and we had a parting ceremony with the Sawyadaw and said our goodbyes. It was a bittersweet goodbye because we became attached to the town and their generosity and everyone’s hard work was put to a great cause and outcome. These trips are really not about the numbers by any means, but seeing about 3,000 patients in three days is pretty incredible.
It may have been just another rural village in the middle of some country, but the medical care at the Myitwa village was honestly, historical. Large groups wanting to provide medical care don’t come into Myanmar, but we did.
So, was it worth it?
Was it worth the thousands of dollars?
Was it worth the thousands of miles?
Was it worth it to the thousands of people?
*[insert profanity here]* Yes.