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Trekking to Myanmar's Clinics: Diary of a Medical Missionary -- The Bus to Infinity...Road to Taunggyi 3/31/14

written by Thu Tran, MD,FACOG
on Saturday, 19th April ,2014

We landed in Myanmar on 3/30/14 and it took us quite a while to get to our hotel near the airport, as all of us had to help transport 40 heavy boxes of medical equipment and medication.  I had never been on a medical mission before and was unaware of how much “extra” work like sorting and moving crates is involved before and during the trip.  The team organizers and leaders, mostly from the Northern Virginia area, had sent out numerous emails before we left to detail how much medication (antibiotics, ophthalmologic and internal medicine products) they needed to order or receive by donation to care for more than three thousand patients we expected to see in eight  days!    

In the morning, after reloading our boxes into a big bus, we were on our way for a 15-hour bus ride to the mountainous areas of Myanmar.  If you have ever been to Italy’s Amalfi coast or China’s Hunan province on the way to the Zhangjiajie national park,  which inspired the scenery in the movie “Avatar”, you would understand why I was on edge toward the last few hours of the trip which was in darkness.  The roads were very narrow, winding and bumpy, and I was sitting on the side  of the bus looking down the ravines.  Why do I always seem to pick the wrong side of the bus on which to sit?  Why did I need to stare down and see how steep it was?  I started calming myself down by trying to think of the words in Tom Petty’s song “I Won’t Back Down.”   I have this song memorized for whenever I am in a difficult situation.

“ Well I won’t back down.

  No I won’t back down.

  You can stand me up at the gates of hell

  but I won’t back down.

  No I’ll stand my ground, won’t be turned around.

  And I’ll keep this world from draggin me down

  Gonna stand my ground...and I won’t back down.”

 Good for Tom Petty, I thought.  He didn’t have to sit on this bus to infinity staring out into the darkness of the mountain and the ravines wondering when dinner will come or when we will have the next restroom break.  Where, I wondered, did all the stars go to that night?

“Don’t think about your bladder, Thu, don’t think about your bladder.”  I kept telling myself, knowing quite well my personality and the power of suggestion!

At one point, the bus stopped and then started going backwards. Everyone including me was sitting straight up in our chair, wondering what happened in the front?  Why was the driver moving the bus backwards?  What if he missed the curve and the rear of the bus fell off the cliff?  We heard some shouting in Burmese from the outside and realized the assistant to the bus driver had gotten out to guide the bus driver to move forward.  It turns out that the driver had “overshot” the curve and had to back up to make a better right turn or left turn.  I started getting really nervous as this happened several more times.  I was ready to come up to the front to suggest that maybe I should take over for the driver, thinking that unlike the stereotypical Asian woman driver, I have always been fairly good at driving - a little speedy with many traffic tickets, but with steady hands on the steering wheel.  It would have been better to have my own destiny in my hands.  Why did he overshoot a turn?  Could he see the roads ahead of him?  What if the bus had a flat tire now, in this darkness?  I could see my father shaking his head:

“I told you so.  You should have stayed here and sent money over to help the Myanmar people!”  He would have said that.  He always seems to have the last words.

I started daydreaming of being airlifted by AAA.  For years I have paid their fee and have never had to use their service!  Maybe there would be a way to get out of here by calling AAA?

“Dang! I’m going to be so mad if this bus ends up in the ravine and we all die before seeing the first patient in Myanmar.” I said to myself, feeling worried and unhappy. 

I saw some grass huts along the ravines.  Almost none of them had electricity.  On and off, we would see one with a dim neon light in the front and nothing inside.  I saw shadows of children and adults sitting outside their huts.  What were they doing on a hot night like this, with the air full of mosquitos, sitting in the darkness?

I haven’t even mentioned yet what we had during this long bus ride as entertainment.  After a video of Burmese “rappers” probably singing some sentimental songs that sounded almost Chinese, guess whose video we had to watch during part of the ride? Not Tom Petty or at least “Mama Mia” with the music from Abba, or Celine Dione of whom I am not so fond but can at least tolerate.  We had to watch Lady Gaga who barely wore anything but her bra!  Lady Gaga in Myanmar, are you serious?  I said to myself. 

I had never watched Lady Gaga on stage.  I only heard her songs on the morning radio shows in my office.  I remember seeing her picture on CNN one night wearing a “filet mignon” suit on stage, a coat made out of red meat.  She would have looked prettier in a vegetarian suit, I thought, with apples and strawberries hanging down the sleeves, and maybe some green grapes from her hair.  To see her in a “filet mignon” suit made me somehow disgusted with meat, as was her intention, I believe.  I wondered what the Burmese drivers thought of Lady Gaga, as she was crawling all over the stage belching out “I want your love.”  Hmm, I thought to myself, if all the men are watching this scene, Lady Gaga will be single for a long time.  

After all, Myanmar is a very conservative society where women and men still wear longyi, a long skirt almost down to the ground.  The women have their shoulders covered even in the extreme heat.  There is something quite charming about their modesty.

Several hours before we reached Taunggyi, a dental assistant got nauseous and was ushered to the front of the bus. She vomitted. Shortly after, a woman from the support team also got sick and was taken toward the front of the bus.

"Don't think about your stomach, Thu, don't think about the stomach.  Think Tom Petty." I started panicking inside.  Like a child, I desperately wanted to stand up and chant "Are we there yet? Are we there yet?"

For a brief moment in the dark, the bus stopped at a hotel and the management allowed us to get out to one of their open areas to get some fresh air.  Dr. Mylene Huynh, the military family practitioner who recruited me for this mission, followed me out of the bus.  We stretched and took in the warm fresh air as we gazed down the ravine to the small houses below.  There was so little light.  It was dark and eerie.  I could see the bare backyards of some houses.  This was no Amalfi coast, I told myself. This definitely was not like the Greek Island Santorini which lit up like a diamond at night, a view I once captured on my camera from a cruise ship. How do people still live without electricity in this era?  

Somehow, we got to the Taunggyi Hotel that night, all AWAO, a medical abbreviation for “Alive and Well, Alert and Oriented.”   As medical students, we used to be trained to use this term to describe a patient’s state of well being!

I was so happy to have arrived to Taunggyi until I learned how we had to unload all the boxes again, and tonight, I was assigned to be among those who had to stay up to open the boxes and sort out the items for the physicians on the team.  I gathered all the items I packed for my specialty: plastic speculums, feminine pads, KY jelly for pelvic exams, prenatal vitamins, my fetal doppler (to listen to the baby’s heart) and ultrasonic gel to go with it,alcohol swabs, bottles of hand sanitizer and, of course, a box of N-95 masks.  By the time we finished (with the pharmacy team sorting out the numerous medications they carried for the trip), it was 2 am!  Good thing I am an obstetrician who has gotten used to sleepless nights and working 36 hours straight.  My specialty gave me the endurance to survive this first day.  I had 2.5 hours of sleep that night, tossing and turning with my jet lag.  Myanmar is ten hours ahead of Washington DC.  I tried not to make any noise, as my first roommate Dr. Sophie Richard, a Canadian family practitioner was sound asleep.  Somewhere in the darkness, an animal was making very loud mourning sounds.  Was it a bird or a wild animal standing near my window?  Was I in a Hitchcock movie?  I didn’t know, but I was missing my family.  At least, I said to myself, my father was wrong.  I survived the long bus ride.  We were not captured by some mountain robbers or rebels.  We were alive and, well, not so well, but alive.

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