Volunteer Review: Harris V., Medicine in Mongolia
First Impressions of Mongolia
If one imagines an incredibly mountainous Britain with even more rain, evidence of large scale flooding and thick, bumpy clouds; they can begin to imagine what Ulaanbaatar looks like from a bird’s-eye view.
When I first arrived in Chinggis Khaan International Airport, it was 5 o’clock in the morning local time. Due to the 8 hour time difference, I was – of course – extremely tired. I saw the Projects Abroad representative and immediately felt much safer and less isolated as she was the first person I had met since I left Heathrow, who spoke my language. However the taxi journey did not fail to keep me awake, partly because of the road condition, but also the view of the mountains and Gers (Mongol-style homes) which I had read so much about were finally right in front of my eyes.
I went and checked in to my accommodation and over the next day I caught up on my sleep and went to the Projects Abroad office. The place is strangely modern and rather cozy when compared to the rest of the city. The other people who were volunteering for a medicine placement arrived within the next day.
My Medicine placement
The first day of the medical placement consisted of the three of us volunteers (Katie, Edmond and I) wearing scrubs and visiting the Morphology department where there were human organs preserved in tanks with formaldehyde. There was also a skinned corpse with the top of the cranium cut off. It was very interesting because this particular figure was used for analyzing muscle structure. Later on we were taught how to take blood pressure and how to give injections. We were shown by a nurse who was very kind and professional; one thing which I have found with anyone with an occupation within the Mongolian healthcare system is that they are professional and very privileged to be working there.
After we had become more comfortable with our surroundings, we began to enjoy wearing scrubs and grew more confident with helping patients.
There were many prominent occurrences which happened during our two-week placement. I donated a box of surgical gloves to one of the secondary hospitals (and they were extremely grateful, if there is one thing that I’d recommend for any placement, it would be to donate something!). The way the hospital system works in Mongolia is that there are Primary, Secondary and Tertiary level hospitals. This is dissimilar to the UK where there are either Practitioner’s surgeries or Hospitals – which would be the equivalent of a Mongolian Primary level hospital.
We visited a pediatric ward at one stage, and this was a fantastic opportunity to see a happy environment. I figured out that anywhere where there are children are present, the general environment is upbeat and the nurses are happy. I went to the post-surgery ward which was not so vibrant, as the patients were considerably unwell but it was an opportunity to help the patients which made me feel useful.
I saw many surgeries during the placement, the first one I observed caused me to feel extremely faint and I had to leave the room and sit down for a while. I felt pathetic for this reason but I think it would have been more embarrassing if I’d have fainted there and then. We were stood in the theatre but it was key hole surgery so there was a fiber optical camera inside the patient and the operation) was projected onto a screen.
I saw a neuro-surgery whereby there were three surgeons observing the inside of a man’s head. An interesting thing about the healthcare system is that on Tuesdays, it is national bad-luck day so everything moves much more slowly in the hospital and there are no surgeries.
The three of us and a representative visited an orphanage which was easily one of the most profound experiences of my life. In my opinion, a visit to an orphanage is the best therapy that exists and the reason is simply that all of the orphans are so happy. They discovered my capability for drawing and they ended up – literally – queuing to have their portrait drawn by me. When I had finished the portraits, the children seemed extremely pleased and went to put their drawings somewhere safe. This gave me an overwhelming sense of achievement and it has brought me to realize that such a small thing can have such a great impact upon someone else. The visit has also taught me to appreciate what I have and I am more grateful of my lifestyle as a result of this.
Another incomparable experience was visiting the maternity ward of one of the hospitals. By the end of the day I must have seen and helped at least 20 babies be born. It was a fascinating experience because of the prospect of new life, and when the baby met the mother for the first time it was overwhelming. The maternity doctors all seemed to be happy and I think a sense of fulfillment would be achieved if one had an occupation such as this.
There were many restaurants which we went to with a large variety of different foods, the closest to English food which we ate was at a place called Wendy Bakery and we ate pastries and cakes which was much nicer than some of the foods.
We went to a Japanese restaurant, a Russian one and many others. We also went to a ‘Mongolian wok’ which was also referred to as a ‘custom BBQ’ which consists of a large, heated, circular, flat surface and the chef would take the customer’s choice of food (from a selection of beef, horse and many other types of food) and cook it on the surface then hand it back to the customer. Another tip which would be advisable to take on is that one must have adequate control of chopsticks before venturing into the continental restaurants.
During the first week, in one of the evenings, we went to the National History Museum. There were lots of statues of Mongolian warriors, including Chinggis Khaan, a famous Mongolian war leader who I researched prior to visiting Mongolia. There was also modern history with regard to Mongolia, including a visit from George Bush (which the locals were all very proud of).
We went to see a statue of Bogd Khaan (the most recent Khaan of Mongolia) on top of a hill, looking out over Ulaanbaatar. There are approximately 650 steps to the top and it felt good to have some exercise after several days of doing none. The view and the busy life it contained was extraordinary.
We went to a small theme park at one point and earlier on this day we went to a small zoo where we saw animals such as Mongolian wolves and snakes.
The best thing that we did with regard to free time was on one of the weekend days. I had some amazing experiences; we visited the tribe of one of the Projects Abroad staff and tried the local delicacies: ‘airag’ which is fermented mare’s milk, which has an acquired taste at first but is quite tasteful after some time. Also, milk curds which are literally lumps of cheese/milk which are referred to as ‘sweets’. We also ate some steamed dumplings which consisted of horse meat and fat wrapped in pastry, they were delicious.
The journey home was much the same as the journey to Mongolia, although the plane was delayed from Mongolia by an hour which meant my plane from Moscow to England was delayed by 6-or-so hours. All in all, it was the best experience of my life and I would recommend it to anyone, as long as you don’t mind the dramatic culture change.
This is a personal account of one volunteer’s experience on the project and is a snapshot in time. Your experience may be different, as our projects are constantly adapting to local needs and building on accomplishments. Seasonal weather changes can also have a big impact. Find out more about what you can expect from this project, or speak to one of our friendly Program Advisors.