Dr. Carl Lum, right, surgeon and veteran of many overseas medical missions, is with Sitagu Sayadaw, the Myanmar sponsor of the Aloha Medical Mission. Sitagu Sayadaw means "chief monk."
Hawaii medical team on Myanmar mission
A 22-member Aloha Medical Mission has left Honolulu for Myanmar to provide medical care to victims in the Irrawaddy Delta, hardest hit by Cyclone Nargis on May 3.
Dr. Carl Lum, surgeon and veteran of many overseas medical missions, is leading doctors and nurses from Oahu, Kauai, the Big Island, Washington, Oregon and California.
They will be "way at the tip of the country," said Dr. Ko Moe Htun, University of Hawaii professor of engineering, formerly of Myanmar, who assisted the group with information and maps of the area's geography.
"I am sure no tourists or foreigners have gone down there," he said. "It will be something they can be proud about, just like the 18th century where people went to places where other people hadn't gone."
In an e-mail interview before departure, Lum said the team will work in one of the clinics of their sponsor, Sitagu Sayadaw, whose name means "chief monk."
More than 100,000 people died or are missing and 2.4 million were left homeless without adequate food, water and medical aid after the cyclone, according to reports.
Because of severe government restrictions, however, only a trickle of aid has reached the people, Lum pointed out.
The Aloha Medical Mission asked to enter the country shortly after the disaster, but like all international aid groups and United Nations workers, visas were denied, Lum said.
Visas finally were obtained after Sayadaw, one of Myanmar's most respected monks, sponsored the group for a two-week mission, he said.
Sayadaw sponsored Aloha Medical Missions in 2006 and 2007 when the volunteers worked at the Sittagu Ayudana Hospital in Sagaing. It was not affected by the cyclone.
Lum anxiously awaited visas for volunteers on the present trip. The last ones did not arrive until Monday, the day before the group left.
Aloha Medical Mission members pay their own way, including transportation and expenses, and take medical supplies and equipment for missions.
They purchased medicines and supplies for Myanmar through fundraising efforts and a donation from the Burma Association of Hawaii, headed by Tin Myaing Thein, who is from the northern part of Myanmar.
She said the Irrawaddy, a huge river similar to the Nile in Egypt, is like a sandbag where it ends and goes into the ocean. The silt builds up into a very rich area for growing rice, she said.
"A lot of people were living there, growing rice, where the cyclone hit," said Thein, executive director of the Pacific Gateway Center, a nonprofit organization that helps low-income people.
She said she signed up for the medical mission initially, but the Gateway Center was in the middle of a construction project so she decided not to go.
"It's just such a shame that help that is available is not allowed to be given," Thein said. "I'm sure whatever they (the Aloha Medical Mission volunteers) do will be fantastic."
The Myanmar Embassy in Washington, D.C., did not charge visa fees for the group, Thein noted. "Little rays of sunshine are coming through. I'm sure not everybody agrees with the government. We don't, either."
The volunteers took supplies.
The group expected to sleep in tents because the roof of the hospital where they will treat patients was blown off, Lum said. They took their own sleeping bags, mosquito nets, water bottles and food.