Friday, November 27, 2009

Burmese Border

When we got back to Bangkok from Hong Kong last Sunday, I went for a run and then spent far too much time unpacking and repacking.  On Monday morning at 5 am, I left for a work trip up to Mae Sot, which is a town on the Thai-Burma border.  The beginning of the trip was a bit dull, but later on, I had the opportunity to visit the Mae La camp for Burmese refugees, most of whom are from the Karen ethic minority.  It was amazing.  There’s some really incredible doctoring done with limited resources at the malaria and antenatal clinics there.

In between playing with some cute kids and observing the doctor, I spent some time in the SCBU (Special Care Baby Unit), where there were teeny tiny babies, some of whom were born at 28 weeks and weighed around 1.2 kilos.  In the West, they would be kept in incubators until they were large and strong enough to be exposed to the elements of the real world.  In the camp, however, they are surrounded by hot water bottles and covered with layers of thick wool blankets as they sleep beside their mother on woven mats in a wall-less building.

My mom is going to start knitting sweaters, hats, and socks for the little ones who need the extra warmth.

The kids at the camp loved hamming it up for the camera (and then eager scrambling to see the results) and didn't really understand that closer is not necessarily better...

They were so fun to hang out with even though we didn't have languages in common.  After a tentative initial interaction, one very sweet, shy little girl warmed to me and became my shadow for the next few hours.  Her 2-year-old sister has been an in-patient at the clinic since infancy because she was born with situs inversus, which means that her heart and intestines are in the wrong place.  I met the family during the doctor's rounds and was amazed at how small the toddler was for a 2 year old and, yet, how alert and interactive and seemingly normal she was despite her fairly significant congenital abnormality.  I can only imagine how the middle sister, my shadow, must feel, spending all day everyday at the clinic and maybe not getting the attention she might have if her little sister were healthy.

I realize it is a bit strange for me to go from one post about shopping and living it up in Hong Kong to another about spending time in a refugee camp.  I feel guilty about traveling and buying frivolous things when girls like this are spending their entire lives fenced in with limited resources, no legal identification, and a future that is so unknown.

The visit reminded me how much I want to practice medicine, especially in a setting like Mae La.  What an impact the single doctor working at the clinic was making.  Though she was trained as a pediatrician, she was also attending to adult patients with typhus and malaria, and serving as an ER doc, as well.  I think I would love the variety, the interesting diseases, and that do-gooder glow that comes from working selflessly to help others.

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