After a partially built hydropower dam in the southeastern region of Laos collapsed due to heavy rains in July 2018, Tzu Chi volunteers provided disaster relief to the affected residents. In August this year, a Tzu Chi medical volunteer team consisting of healthcare professionals from nine countries and regions travelled to the same region of the country to carry out their first medical aid mission there.
The medical aid mission, which was conducted from 15th to 21st August in three local hospitals, offered five medical specialties. Ophthalmology services were held in Champasak Hospital while internal medicine, dental, surgery, and Chinese medicine services were provided in Paksong Hospital and Attapeu Provincial Hospital.
On the morning of 15th August, a team of volunteers from Singapore comprising members from TIMA (Tzu Chi International Medical Association) and Tzu Chi’s logistics team left for Laos, bringing with them 22 pieces of luggage filled with medical equipment and supplies. Due to the large amount of luggage, they had to travel by flight via Bangkok and Ubon Ratchathani in Thailand, and then take a bus ride to the Thai-Laos border to enter Laos. The arduous journey took over 15 hours.
Medical care with a humane touch
At around 7:30am on the morning of 16th August, the volunteer team arrived at the Paksong Hospital to set up the venue for the first free clinic. The logistics volunteers from Singapore went about installing water pipes and sinks as well as electric cables. With many years of participation in Tzu Chi free clinics overseas, they had accumulated rich experience in the work.
At about 2pm in the afternoon, the dental team from Singapore started seeing and treating patients, and they served a total of 35 needy residents. Before the free clinic commenced, the dentists and their assistants also helped with the setting up of the venue. Head of the dental team Dr. Eugene Tang said that it was a very good learning opportunity for his team members as they got to personally prepare every detail of the dental setup themselves.
Besides ensuring that all safety and hygiene requirements were met, the dental team thoughtfully placed soft pillows on the treatment chairs for the comfort of the patients. They also paid extra attention to make sure that their tools and equipment were sterilised and clean.
The Chinese medicine section of the free clinic had two treatment spaces. The TCM (traditional Chinese medicine) team was made up of eight members, with five of them hailing from Taiwan, two from Thailand and one from Hong Kong. And among them, seven were first-time participants in a Tzu Chi medical aid mission overseas.
Head of the TCM team Dr. Huang Qian Qi took on the task of planning for the operation of the TCM section, and she also had to be alert at all times to deal with emergencies, such as patients feeling dizzy during acupuncture treatments.
Armed with rich experience in overseas medical missions, Dr, Huang shared that the reason why patients would feel dizzy was normally because many of them arrived at the free clinic with an empty stomach. Thus, volunteers would prepare some biscuits for the patients in the waiting area so that the latter could eat some food before having their acupuncture treatment.
“When we spread the light of a candle, there will be more light (as more candles are lit),” shared Dr. Huang.
She said that it was important for her to share her experience with others, and that she was also able to gain new knowledge during the mission. Seeing so many young doctors devoting themselves into the medical aid mission this time made her very happy.
The majority of the patients who came to this free clinic worked at coffee plantations. They were mostly suffering from aching muscles as a result of doing heavy labour work for long periods of time, and sought treatment at the TCM section.
Among them was 76-year-old Pitnampo Phong, who walked with a crutch. She had endured over ten years of pain in her leg, knees and neck; the medical treatments and medications she had received previously were ineffective in treating her ailments. TIMA’s TCM physician from Taiwan, Xie Yao Lian, used acupuncture, moxibustion, and cupping on her, which relieved much of her pain, and she was able to walk with more ease after the treatment.
Another patient who benefited from the TCM services was Hueng, the head of a village nearby. After receiving acupuncture treatment from Dr. Ou Zong Yi on his head, his blurred vision improved. And he was especially amazed that he was now able to get up from a squat, something which he could not do by himself before the treatment. Beaming happily, he squatted up and down several times before everyone.
Second free clinic served twice as many patients as the first
The second free clinic was held in Attapeu Provincial Hospital, which was about about 159km away from Paksong. In the afternoon on 17th August, a team of seven volunteers set off for Attapeu Province; early the next morning, they went to Attapeu Provincial Hospital to set up the venue. As the ground was covered with moss, the volunteers were concerned that people might slip and fall as they walked on it. Thus, they quickly went to purchase some cleaning tools to clean it away.
The medical team travelled to Attapeu in the afternoon on 18th August and started serving patients the following morning. At about 7:30am, there were already more than a hundred people at the waiting area, although the free clinic only started operating at 8am. Many of the hospital staff members joined the Tzu Chi team to help out at the free clinic.
Although it was a new venue, the services provided touched and warmed people’s hearts all the same. The medical team served twice as many people there as those they served in Paksong. The doctors and nurses made every effort they could to see every patient who had come, especially those who live in the dam disaster region some 30km away.
When the 3-day free clinic at Attapeu came to an end, the deputy CEO of Tzu Chi Singapore, Kenny Khoo, who was also the coordinator for the medical aid mission, expressed his heartfelt gratitude to the medical personnel as well as the local entrepreneurs, for their selfless efforts and contributions. Without the joint efforts of everyone, the mission would not have been successful.
Reflections and sharing at the close of the medical mission
When the medical mission came to an end on 20th August, the medical volunteer team gathered at Champasak Grand Hotel for a sharing session. Apart from the medical volunteers, the deputy mayor was also present to give out souvenirs.
Deputy CEO of Tzu Chi Taiwan’s charity foundation, David Liu, gave a speech where he thanked everyone, including the volunteers as well as the local authorities and residents, for the successful completion of the medical mission. He also shared that among the patients were a bone cancer patient, a girl with hemangioma, and a boy with deformed feet, and that Tzu Chi would follow up on these cases to help them seek further medical assistance.
In his speech, the deputy mayor said that he was deeply touched as he had witnessed how all the volunteers gave of themselves without asking for anything in return, with the common goal of serving needy patients. He also highlighted that as Paksong is located in a remote region, there are still many sick and needy residents there who need medical assistance.
Two young dentists from Singapore, Dr. Chen Chang Feng and Dr. Teo Yoke Teng, both of whom were first-time participants in a Tzu Chi free clinic overseas, shared with everyone their experience and reflections.
A Dundee University graduate, Dr. Chen, who was a good team player, shared that he had worked well with the mostly middle-aged volunteers in the team, and that he had many opportunities to learn from the experienced doctors.
Dr. Teo Yoke Teng said that the medical aid mission was an eye opener for the younger dentists, and that she was amazed by how the multinational volunteers were able to get along so well and work together towards a common goal. She was especially impressed with the excellent team spirit they displayed. The young dentist also complimented on the delicious “home-cooked” vegetarian meals served to the team, and felt very blessed and fortunate to be given the opportunity to serve with love.
The medical aid mission held at three locations in the southeastern region of Laos benefitted over 3,100 patients, which exceeded the original estimate of 2200, thanks to the efforts of the medical personnel, Tzu Chi volunteers and the local volunteers who helped with translation!