Mission to Mongolia: Reflections from Team Member AJ Neal
By: AJ Neal, Mission to Mongolia 2016
As my second excursion to Mongolia approached, I learned a few things that made me apprehensive about the trip. One was that the recent election cycle had ousted the politicians who had sponsored us last year, and the incoming replacements weren’t as open to our presence for political reasons. Another was that Amaraa, the previous mission’s contact/translator/everything might not be coming, and after seeing how instrumental he was in last year’s mission, the idea of him not being there made me a little uneasy.
It wasn’t until I had a candid conversation with Dr. Geelhoed that my perspective shifted. In his words,
“If all you do is worry about the bureaucratic mess it takes to get to those who need care the most, no one would ever get helped.”
Still, when arriving at Dulles for our flight, I had my doubts about the potential for success on this mission. There, I saw two things that helped assuage my apprehensions: One was seeing Amaraa there with his bags packed, and the other was seeing the 30+ massive duffels of crucial medical supplies that were flying with us. With so many supplies, how could the mission not be a success?
Once we landed in the Mongolian capital of Ulaanbaatar, it took a short while to get those supplies released from customs, and it wasn’t until the next evening that we were on our way to our first stop: Uliastai, the capital of Zavkahn Province, and one of the places we visited last year.
There are a few things about our time in Uliastai that I will carry with me.
One is the overwhelming support we experienced from all the parties involved there: the surgeons, the nursing staff, the cooks – everyone.
Another is the experience of delivering the contents those enormous orange duffels. Unpacking those bags of medical supplies was analogous to Christmas morning for the staff there, as they already knew from last year that those duffels contained badly needed supplies.
The last big takeaway from Uliastai, for me, was seeing Timea Krause, an ENT from Germany that accompanied us on the trip, spending the day with Uliastai’s local ENT, seeing patients and answering questions. I have no doubt that as a result of this knowledge sharing, he is now able to practice better, more effective care.
Leaving Uliastai, we traveled north, farther into the authentic Mongolian landscape to a small village called Songino, the birthplace of Amaraa. There we saw much of the same in terms of hospitality and support, but less in terms of resources and care, which is exactly the reason for our attendance.
I spent the majority of my time with Dr. Krause seeing patients in the “ENT Clinic” we set up. There, I was able to interact with numerous patients, and Dr. Krause was generous enough to allow me and others the opportunity to evaluate the cases and come up with diagnoses before she gave her input. I truly lived a day in the life of a practicing ENT, which is an experience I will never forget.
Having had time to reflect, I couldn’t have been more wrong in my initial trepidations. While I still feel caution has a place, looking back at the mission, I can see that Dr. G. was right – if you focus too much on the obstacles to offering care, no one will ever get helped. Outside obstacles to offering care should not supercede the attempt to get care to those who need it. That is a lesson I will take with me for the rest of my life.