Rebecca Ko - Medicine in Mongolia
The stories that I listened to about Mongolia as a child were always vivid in my mind - I imagined gers, camels, and the Gobi desert, worlds away from my home in Vancouver. After my second year of university, I finally had the time and the means to visit Mongolia. Since I wanted to learn about the country from a Mongolian perspective rather than that of a tourist, I decided to volunteer with Projects Abroad, where I would have the opportunity to interact closely with Mongolian citizens. My parents were surprised and a bit worried; I was nineteen years old, and I had never travelled alone before. When they realized I was serious, a compromise was struck: a faraway location in exchange for a short duration. And so, I registered for the two-week Medicine in Mongolia project.
Arriving in the bustling city of Ulaanbaatar was an overwhelming experience. Apartment buildings were crowded together, throngs of people walked in all directions, and the rush-hour traffic seemed to last all day. Fortunately, I was greeted by an experienced group of volunteer coordinators that showed me around Ulaanbaatar and introduced me to the other volunteers. I met many new friends from all over the world. Most of them were students, and it was very interesting to hear about their families and culture.
During my two weeks in Ulaanbaatar, I lived with a host family. The father was a veterinarian, and the mother worked in the Ministry of Agriculture. The family had two young boys. Despite a few difficulties with communication, my host family was very friendly and open, and I felt easily accepted.
Living with my host family was very comfortable, with the exception of the occasional power cut or cutting off of hot water. The elevators in the apartment building stopped working after 10pm, so there were a few times I had to walk up twelve flights of stairs in darkness but I quickly learned to carry a torch around. The food took a while to adjust to. Mongolia, being a land-locked country, doesn’t import a diverse variety of food. Meals were repetitive: most dishes were noodles or rice with a meat, either mutton or beef, and potato and carrots.
Throughout the two weeks, the volunteers rotated between three hospitals: the State Second Hospital, the Children’s Hospital, and the maternity house. The doctors were very good at explaining what they were doing, using a mix of technical terms, diagrams, and charades. In ten days, I watched surgeries such as laparoscopies, excisions of gallbladders and cysts, and caesarean sections.
Since I didn’t have any medical training, my role was mainly to observe. The volunteers got to do a few hands-on activities: we took x-rays of our hands, learned how to measure blood pressure, and practiced airway management.
The two weeks passed by much too quickly. When I returned home, a few friends asked me why I paid to volunteer in Mongolia rather than volunteering for free at home. It was a fair question; what did I learn during my time in Mongolia?
I think I gained independence and confidence from the first day of my trip. It was the first time I travelled by myself, so I was responsible for my money, passport, and safety. I learned how to go through customs in the airport and how to use traveller’s cheques. Being in a foreign country really forced me to talk to people and to ask questions to clarify anything I didn’t understand.
Volunteering overseas gave me a chance to make connections with people, whether it was my host family, the doctors I worked with at the hospital, or the other volunteers. We all came from different parts of the world, and were interested in learning about each other. I was struck by the fact that although we had such different backgrounds, there were more similarities among us than differences.
Because I lived with a host family, I was immersed completely in Mongolian culture. I got to experience the country from the perspective of a Mongolian person; I took the taxi, went grocery shopping, and watched the news on TV.
There is no programme in Vancouver that would’ve paralleled my exposure to medicine in Mongolia. In Mongolia, the patient privacy policies were less strict, and the doctors encouraged us to wander around and to take pictures during surgeries. Since I am considering working in health care in the future, being able to see an entire surgery, from the first cut to suturing at the end, confirmed that I really want to learn more about medicine.
Not every experience was good. Some days, doctors turned us away from the hospital because there were power cuts, and all the surgeries have been cancelled. At first, I felt frustrated, but I realized that I could still learn from these negative experiences. I was seeing how undeveloped some facilities were, and how it affected patients as a result.
Another thing that I found strange was that entry tickets cost ten times more for foreigners than for native Mongolians. I thought it was discriminatory, but then I found out that the Mongolian standard of living was very low; for instance, doctors only earn about $100 per month. By having a double standard when charging, it allows landmarks to be affordable to the citizens, while the fees collected from foreigners can be used to maintain the sites. Running into these sorts of problems taught me to be more flexible and patient when problems arise, as well as to think about issues more carefully before making judgements.
In all, my trip to Mongolia was a rewarding experience. I learned a lot about the country, its people and culture, medicine, and myself.