Myanmar village gets medicine, plus Aloha
Burmese doctors had warned the government would forbid the mission
An Aloha Medical Mission to Myanmar that Burmese doctors in Honolulu said wouldn't be allowed was conducted successfully by 13 doctors and nurses.
"Although the military government has been strongly condemned by the U.S. and the world community for human rights violations," said Dr. Carl Lum of Honolulu, "we did not experience or were aware of any political problems during our stay, and the people simply went about their daily lives, which appears to be improving."
The group was invited to send another mission to Myanmar, also known as Burma, next year and will be joined by at least one local Burmese doctor who heard of the recent successful experience.
A general surgeon and Aloha Medical Mission veteran, Lum said the organization has tried for several years to send a mission to Burma. But he said Honolulu-based Burmese doctors said the military government wouldn't approve or support such a mission.
Lum said he was finally contacted by Dr. Thein Myaing Thein, head of the Pacific Gateway Center, formerly the Immigrant Center, who set things in motion for a mission.
Thein went to Myanmar in January to visit her family and met with chief monk Ashin Nyanissara in Sagaing. He liked the idea of sponsoring the mission at the Sitagu Ayudana Hospital, which he founded, and obtained approval from the Ministry of Health, Lum said.
Seven doctors and six nurses, all but two from Hawaii, participated in the mission from Sept. 29 to Oct. 14.
The group included three interpreters: Mary Uyeda, a registered nurse, and her sister Paula Helfrich, both of Hilo, and Dr. Aisha Simjee, an ophthalmologist from Orange, Calif.
Helfrich, who runs the Economic Development Alliance of Hawaii on the Big Island, and her seven brothers and sisters were raised in Burma. She said she went to school with Thein in Kalaw, Myanmar, and goes back about every three years.
It was Simjee's first trip back home, Lum said, explaining she didn't return sooner because she thought the emotional impact would be too great.
In a paper describing the mission, Helfrich called it "rubber slipper medicine." The doctors and nurses would "rise early for their work, clad in scrubs" and wearing rubber slippers just as the villagers did, she wrote.
The group stayed in the Sittagu Ayudana Monastery, one of 470 monasteries and convents housing more than 10,000 monks, nuns and novices, she said.
About 50 local doctors, nurses and technicians staff the Spartan hospital, which cares for the "rural poor," Helfrich said. Many patients walk for days from remote villages and wait for treatment for days or weeks in a large courtyard, she said.
Lum said the Aloha Medical Mission treated more than 200 indigent patients and performed 60 major surgeries to treat breast, stomach and thyroid cancers, gallbladders, goiters, hernias and cataracts.
Dr. Michael Healy, pediatrician at the Naval Medical Center at Makalapa and Kapiolani Medical Center for Women and Children, treated about 100 children before and after surgery and ran an outpatient clinic.
A Johns Hopkins University study in 2000 said Myanmar had cut back on health care to about $1 per capita per year, Healy said, and it has one of the lowest levels of health care in the world.
"Burma has something like 7 percent of the malaria in Southeast Asia but 50 percent of the deaths," Healy said. "It's the same with TB.
"They're not getting treatment or, if they are, it's not adequate," he said.
"Children are a barometer of the general well-being of a nation because they're the most fragile, along with the women," Healy said, "so they're the first ones you're going to see with recurrent illnesses."
Compared to Laos and Cambodia, he said, Myanmar probably has more malnutrition.
He said some children had chronic problems, such as cerebral palsy and birth defects, that the mission doctors couldn't treat, but most responded quickly to antibiotics, vitamins and simple outpatient procedures.
Others on the mission were: Dr. Andrew Oishi, Kuakini Hospital general surgeon; Dr. Alain Wu of St. Joseph's Hospital, Orange, Calif.; Dr. Steve Garon of Hilo Medical Center, anesthesiologists; Dr. James Epure of the Veterans Administration Clinic; and Dr. Frank Hollister, Maui Memorial Hospital physician assistant in emergency and family practice.
The nursing staff, all Aloha Medical Mission veterans, included Sonia Gumbs, nurse supervisor for Hilo Community Correctional Center; Shon Magsalin, Ken Kuwahara and Uyeda, all of Hilo Medical Center; and Marie Pacleb of Kaiser Permanente. Helfrich was on the team as "translator, scribe and general gofer."