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Volunteer AbroadVolunteer Overseas

Edward Yen-Wei Chien - Medicine in Nepal

In Kathmandu

In 2007, I ventured to the vast unknown country of Mongolia with Projects Abroad and had the experience of a lifetime. For years afterwards, I continued to contemplate when my next opportunity to traverse halfway around the world to participate in another medical elective would come. Three years later, I found myself in the bustling streets of Kathmandu, Nepal, volunteering at a community hospital.

It takes a certain type of personality to volunteer overseas in which the candidate is thrown out of his or her comfort zone. Many friends and colleagues have asked me why I volunteer abroad. My answer is simple: You only live once. The world is a mosaic of different cultures and ethnicities. Why not take time out of your busy schedule back home to travel abroad to a far and exotic place, immerse yourself in the local culture, and have the experience of a lifetime?

But more importantly, why not offer assistance, such as your medical expertise or knowledge, to those in need? Volunteering overseas is truly an extraordinary experience and once you have done it once, I guarantee that you would want more. I speak from experience.

Choosing where to go is by far the most difficult decision you would ever make when deciding to volunteer abroad. As an adventurer, I always like to choose places which are relatively unknown, and which possess some mysterious allure. What better choice could Nepal be? Wedged between the snow-capped mountains of the Himalayas and the humid jungles along the Indian border, the small nation of Nepal remains hidden from most of the developed world.

Posing with a snake

The moment I set foot on Nepali soil, I knew I was in for another adventure.  A typical day for me at the local hospital consisted of shadowing the general practitioner while he assessed patients’ conditions, performing follow-up rounds in the general ward, and observing the gastroenterologist specialist perform endoscopies of patients. As a registered pharmacist in Canada, I was able to use my medical knowledge to discuss various treatment differences between the Nepali and Canadian healthcare systems with my supervisor. Not only was I able to observe various ailments and get some hands-on experience with medical practices while in Nepal, but I was also able to provide Nepali physicians with medication usage and safety information.

Frequently, upon seeing a patient, the family doctor would quiz me on what I think the diagnosis should be and what medications I would consider giving the patient. In addition, the doctor would also test me on the physiological or pharmaceutical aspects relating to the particular patient. In addition, I was also to get hands-on experience with reading lab values and assessing x-ray results. By the end of my trip, I was able to differentiate between diagnoses of pneumonia and tuberculosis based on the signs and symptoms and the x-ray results.  Overall, my time at the hospital and the relationship I had with my supervisor were extremely positive and fulfilling.

A vivid memory I have of my time at Stupa Community Hospital was the various endoscopies that Dr. Swasti, my supervisor, performed. Time and time again, he would allow me to have a peek inside the scope to view the insides of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract. From the peachy duodenal walls, patchy reddish ulcer lesions in the stomach, peristaltic movements along the oesophagus, to the cusp -looking epiglottis, I was truly blown away each and every time I was able to examine the interior of our GI tract. Quite amazing, is it not?

However, volunteering at the hospital itself was only  a fraction of my amazing adventure; exploring the Nepali landscape and visiting cultural sites, meeting wonderful volunteers from all over the world, and living with a local family (or in my case, in a dorm-like apartment with up to nine other volunteers) were ultimately what made volunteering abroad such a priceless experience.

With other medical volunteers

During my five weeks in Nepal, I became great friends with many volunteers from Australia, England, and the Netherlands, many of whom I still keep in touch with. On our free time, we would either spend time lounging around our home or venture off somewhere in the city or around the valley. There were always something to do and somewhere to go. I was extremely fortunate to be placed near Boudhanath, considering that Pashupatinath, Kopan, and Gorkana Mahadev were only short treks away. My fellow dorm mates and I also had the pleasure of accessing the rooftop patio of our apartment where we could see the stars at night.

Going to Nepal was an adventure I will not soon forget and hope that one day I can venture back to the majestic landscape of the Himalayan Mountains.  I have too many fond memories of Nepal that it would be impossible to list them all; however, three moments which I will never forget are: (1) Getting lost with Sophie Kiff  trying to get to Kopan Monastery, but ending up on a beautiful two-hour trek up the hill to another monastery where we were invited to sit in on the Tibetan Buddhists’ evening prayers, and (2) flying high above the Himalayan mountains and seeing Mount Everest within an arm’s reach away on my last day in Nepal. I could not have asked for a better ending to a wonderful trip.

The best advice that I have for any travellers is to drop all of your current expectations of your destination. When you leave home with no expectations and allow your particular destination to bestow upon you its cultural and lifestyle uniqueness, you will definitely experience something special. As I continue living my everyday life here in Vancouver as a pharmacist, I cannot help but daydream about my next volunteer destination (maybe Ghana?).

In the meantime, I highly encourage anyone who is interested in volunteering abroad to take the jump into the unknown and venture off to Nepal, where the world’s highest mountain range is your everyday backdrop.  I am sure that the unknown will eventually become a place that you can call home.

Edward Yen-Wei Chien

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