COURTESY PHOTO / OCTOBER 2006
Dr. Carl Lum of Honolulu prepares for surgery at the Sitagu Ayudhana Hospital in Sagaing, Myanmar, wearing the rubber slippers required by the hospital.
Team gets OK for Myanmar mission
The Aloha Medical Mission of 15 Hawaii doctors, nurses and support personnel to Myanmar, also known as Burma, was in doubt after Myanmar's government recently imposed a curfew and a brutal police crackdown on monks and others demonstrating for democracy.
But on Tuesday the medical team got the news that the mission could proceed Oct. 20-29 -- "that all is quiet and peaceful in Mandalay-Sagaing."
Dr. Carl Lum, who led a successful mission to Myanmar last year, said in an e-mail to his team that he is having a waiver and release of liability form drawn up specifically for the mission.
"Please talk it over with your family and get their approval also," the e-mail said. "If you decide not to go, we will understand. But I do hope you will join us."
The team will leave here Oct. 18 and arrive in Rangoon on Oct. 20, said Paula Helfrich, repeat Myanmar mission member who runs the Economic Development Alliance on the Big Island.
"There was some trepidation originally," she said. "We're just so grateful the monks have sent the word ... to come on."
Dr. Thein Myaing Thein, head of the Pacific Gateway Center, was responsible for arranging a mission that Myanmar doctors in Honolulu said would not be allowed.
The group was invited to return to Sittagu Ayudhana Monastery Hospital in Sagaing after treating more than 200 indigent patients, performing 60 major surgeries, treating hundreds of patients in outpatient clinics and training Myanmar medical personnel.
"We are honored to be invited for the second time to the excellent medical facilities in the monastery compound," Lum said.
Helfrich and her sister Mary Uyeda, both of Hilo, were raised in Myanmar and speak Burmese, the country's language, as do Dr. Myo Nwe and his wife, Lucy, a respiratory therapist at Wahiawa General Hospital.
"I'm just excited," Helfrich said yesterday. "I don't think any of us were worried about safety, but we just want to do good work."
Sagaing, an ancient center of Buddhist learning across the Ayerawaddy River from Mandalay, has more than 150 monasteries and convents with more than 14,000 Buddhist monks and nuns.
Nwe said he is looking forward to seeing his mother and family in Yangon. He left Myanmar in 1974 for Chicago, where he did his medical residency and internship, then came to Hawaii in 1987 and joined Kuakini Medical Center as an emergency physician.
Nwe is new to the Aloha Medical Mission but said he has gone to Myanmar annually with a group from the Burmese American Physicians' Association in Chicago to educate doctors and medical students.
He declined to comment on the political situation in his homeland, saying, "This is a nonpolitical medical mission to take care of poor people in a rural area where there is no medical treatment, to help people down there."
Aloha Medical Mission volunteers have performed more than 75 missions in 15 nations and aboard the U.S. Navy ships USS Mercy and USS Peleliu. They pay their own airfare and expenses and take their own supplies.
Helfrich said the Myanmar group will have eight to 10 boxes of medical supplies and textbooks. She will be taking teaching materials for English as a second language.
They will also take hundreds of little drawstring bags made by nurse Sonja Gumbs, nursing supervisor at Hawaii Community Correctional Facility, that were a big hit last year, Helfrich said. They were stuffed with pencils, medicines, crayons and erasers.
Helfrich also will be packing SpongeBob SquarePants Band-Aids. "They were the absolute hit last year," she said. "Kids absolutely loved them."