Six Project HOPE Volunteers Begin Work in Mongolia
"You get this snapshot of this how people live here and understanding what health means to them, what they've had to do to fight for it. Some patients are traveling 200 kilometers to their nearest health clinic."
It’s a rare day in the country when– speeding along through a hail storm across a sheep-scattered plain, the scent of oregano and sage in the air– you round a grassy slope to find yourself face to face with Genghis Khan. All 120 feet of him.
He of course, is a statue, and you are in the middle-of-nowhere, Mongolia, an area that looks like the set from a spaghetti western, headed to camp out in a well-equipped wool hut with a wood-burning stove for the week.
In this case you might be one of six Project HOPE volunteers participating with U.S. Pacific Command’s Pacific Angel (PACANGEL) Mongolia, a combined health mission partnering the Mogolian Armed Forces, Mongolian Border Forces and local Mongolian health workers with U.S. and Sri Lankan Armed Forces and Project HOPE health care providers to promote cultural understanding and build health capacity. The team is led by the 13th U.S. Air Force out of Hickam Air Force Base, Honolulu, Hawaii.
PACANGEL, which completed medical operations in previous years with Project HOPE in Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, East Timor, Indonesia and other Asia/Pacific countries, expects to examine and treat an estimated 6,000 patients in Mongolia, providing medical and dental exams as well as public health education.
“The country is no longer socialist so people have to pay to go to the doctor now,” says Major James Sandvig medical team lead of the 13th U.S. Air Force, referring to the collapse of the Soviet Empire in 1990/91, which instantly reduced Mongolian GDP by one third and ended subsidized health care.
Traditional host nation medical staff work alongside veterinarians, collaborating with Mongolian herders and engineers, remodeling a clinic, during the day and camp together at night. Footballs and Frisbees require no common language and are immediately deployed across the camp’s grassy prairie when the day’s work is done.
Even support staff were chosen because of their work in the field. Project HOPE volunteer certified nurse-midwife Denise Barnes was impressed to learn that her assigned interpreter was actually a licensed Mongolian OB/GYN.
“This is an opportunity to ask those delving questions– because you can’t be at the bus stop and be like, ‘By the way, what are your major health concerns? Why are you upset with your health care system? What do you have to do to get around those challenges?'” said Karen Kwok, a San Francisco, California-based family nurse practitioner volunteering for Project HOPE as a public health program evaluator.
Capacity building includes sourcing as many supplies as possible from within the host country, which means experiencing the same red tape of any Mongolian citizen. Footballs were laid aside at camp the night before the first day of open clinic to unload a truckfull of medical supplies.
The next morning on site at Ondorhan hospital’s outpatient clinic, with a line of patients snaking around the parking lot, team members unpacked the boxes and decoded Russian language medication labels with dedicated focus to ready the pharmacy for action. The ophthalmology team was hurriedly trying to track down a supply of steroids in order to be able to begin cataract surgeries.
Meanwhile, Project HOPE volunteer optometrist Dr. James Honl of Anderson, South Carolina and his Mongolian counterparts were able to work at a more relaxed pace setting up an autorefractor in the eye clinic.
“You get this snapshot of this how people live here and understanding what health means to them, what they’ve had to do to fight for it. Some patients are traveling 200 kilometers to their nearest health clinic,” said Karen Kwok. She adds, “We have Mongolian patients at our family health care clinic back home…I consider it a privilege to come to Mongolia and hopefully be able to effectively apply what I learn in my own backyard.”