Aimee and her boyfriend Zach recently participated in a Tibetan Children’s Education Foundation (TCEF) service trip to open a hospital in Zanskar, India. Aimee reflects on her incredible experience.
Outside, the wind is blowing the prayer flags and whipping up dust clouds. The sun is beating down on the brilliant white glaciers that seem to be just barely hanging onto the sides of the nearby mountains, while men, women, and children of all ages await their turn to come into the newly opened Mentse Kange Hospital in Zanskar.
Inside, beautifully weathered faces sit patiently with their milky eyes, aching knees, sore backs, and cramped hands. Babies wriggle in their mothers’ arms, fussing over some ailment that we’re not yet sure about. Women wait anxiously to see the OB-GYN for everything from the early stages of pregnancy to infections to cervical screenings.
The walls are lined with patients waiting to be registered, have their vitals taken, have their chief complaints logged, and be taken to see one of the doctors or nurses who will do their very best to address their concerns. Between making sure that each person is checked-in to fully understanding their issue and determining if we have the equipment, medication, and/or expertise to treat them, this is no easy task.
The number of patients waiting waxes and wanes from day to day (sometimes 30 or 40, sometimes almost 100), which villages are being represented changes (anywhere from a 15-minute walk away to a 5-day trek), and the ailments that are being treated covers a wide range (everything from joint pain and cataracts in the elderly, to prenatal checkups and full term pregnancy for women, to rickets and vitamin deficiency in the children). While the details vary from day-to-day, the daily scene at the new hospital in Padum is a steady stream of surprises.
Now that I’m home and settled back into life in Montana, I can’t help but reflect on this incredible undertaking. I’m sure that this reflection process, this period of integrating all of the experiences into my life and fully digesting the impact that they’ve had on me, will continue well into the future; I hope it does. I will say though, even after only a few weeks, it’s starting to feel like a dream. A vivid dream for sure, but it has a surreal quality to it. And so, I write; it seems like writing it all down helps make it real again.
Our hard-working team represented a diverse set of skills – from trained physicians and nurses to EMTs and naturopathic doctors in training, to life-long yoga teachers, carpenters, and mediators. We gathered from across the United States (although the bulk of us hailing from Montana) with the intention of getting this new facility up and running, understanding the medical needs of the local population, and doing what we could to make a meaningful impact. We were the first group of medical staff to use this building, and in addition to seeing patients, we hoped to create systems and protocols so that future medical camps could come to Zanskar with at least some of the logistics and details already in place.
All of this is a tall order and absolutely none of it would have been possible without the incredible translators that donated their time to help us, along with small staff and board of the hospital. Our translator team was made up mostly of pre-med and med students originally from Zanskar who were home for their summer holiday. It really was a highlight of my trip to get to work so closely with these local heroes who showed up day-in and day-out to make a difference in their community. They came from far and wide to help us communicate effectively and efficiently with other Zanskaris, and it was amazing to watch the love, care, and patience they had with each patient we saw.
Some mornings we would come in and there would be 80+ patients filling the waiting room, taking up the entire entrance area and spilling out of the front door. We’d have to claw our way through the mob, one “Joo-lay!” at a time just to get in the door (Joo-lay is the local greeting…a catch-all phrase for hello, good-bye, and thank you). Many of these people walked days to get to our clinic. They were eager to be seen by one of our staff, so it was understandable that they were so passionate about getting a spot in line.
Nevertheless, it was often overwhelming for our team – queuing isn’t really a thing in India, so just getting people registered one at a time was a serious task. However, as soon as the local team saw that this mob-style gathering wasn’t going to work for us, they jumped into action.
With great care and affection, our interpreters explained (over and over and over…day after day after day), that those waiting to be registered would have to line-up outside and come in one at a time. There were always one or two who snuck in, and sweet little grannies who would charge the door or creep behind the registration desk as if we didn’t see them, but all in all, it seemed to work. I never once saw a translator lose their cool (even with the rare patient who would kick and scream their way in the door). If they needed to they’d escort them outside, but their tone was gentle, their affection sincere, and their respect palpable. It was truly a thing of beauty.
Needless to say, I’m in awe of the individuals that came together to make all of this possible. In three and a half weeks, after pushing through exhaustion, heartbreaks, and sick days, we saw over 1,700 patients. When you count the number that we saw on our 5-day trek, those that went directly to the in-house Amchi (local Tibetan healer that we were proud to work next to) and the volunteer Chinese Medicine Specialists and Acupuncturists from Singapore, we surely broke 2,000.
While I don’t think that our success can be captured in a number, I’d still say that’s something to celebrate.
Zach and Aimee currently call Missoula, Montana home. Aimee was raised in the mountains of Montana and spends her days balancing her love for the outdoors with her passion for building community. She has studied yoga, meditation and mediation practices for over 15 years, and currently runs Core Connections, her own consulting and education services company. Zach works for a fundraising consulting firm helping non-profits grow and flourish. He has his parents to thank for instilling a love of nature. His small-town Wisconsin upbringing gave him endless access to beautiful parks, slow-meandering rivers, frog ponds, and deciduous forests that he spent countless hours exploring.