Hawaii - Pacific Chapter of ACHE Mobile - Spring 2016 Edition

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The Gift of Hope - Lessons Learned Through Medical Missions

Kelly A Wheeler, Process Improvement Specialist, Army Regional Health Command-Pacific

From December 30, 2015 through 8 January 2016, a team of over 40 personnel, brought together by the Dr. Saw Mra Aung Foundation, Suu Foundation, and Rotarians from Alaska, Nepal, and Hawaii including volunteer healthcare providers and Rotary members traveled together to the Rakhine state, Myanmar. Their mission was to provide basic healthcare to the local population in and around the cities of Thandwe and Ngapali, Myanmar (formerly Burma).  Services provided included vitals, laboratory, ophthalmology, optometry, basic dentistry, pediatrics, internal medicine, general practice, and pharmacy services. Patients received basic health education while they waited while local emergency workers and Red Cross volunteers that supported the mission were taught CPR.

Unknown to many, there is a strong connection to Myanmar in the heart of Honolulu. Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, founded the Suu Foundation and in 2014 established its home base in Honolulu. The Suu Foundation’s short-term goals include restoring the University of Yangon and the Yangon General Hospital.  The home of the foundation in Hawaii was a result of seeds planted by Burmese-born, Miemie Winn Byrd, an Associate Professor at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies along with a strong Burmese community in Hawaii, many of whom work in the health care industry. For the past three years, doctors have been working in conjunction with the Suu Foundation, Dr. Saw Mra Aung Foundation, and Rotarians and Friends, to provide much needed healthcare services in rural areas in Myanmar.

Historical sanctions have been in place on the Burmese military regime since 1998, and the Foreign Assistance Act barred the country from receiving major international assistance initiatives-except for humanitarian assistance, due to the challenges their previous military government had placed on the population. Corruption within the system further exacerbated the lack of available resources. Foreign sanctions limited international support and development, and there was an extreme lack of government investment in the healthcare of the people of Myanmar with less than 3% of the GDP spent on the provision of healthcare. The Myanmar healthcare system remains inadequate to address the medical needs of its population, ranking 190 out 191 in the 2015 World Health Organization health system rankings. Low life expectancy and high death rate caused by malaria, Dengue, and other largely treatable diseases is further evidence of the lack of basic healthcare availability throughout the country.

The medical mission team experienced the outcomes of limited access to quality care first hand. After three days in Rakhine, more than 3,000 people had received basic healthcare from the international team, some waiting for over a day as they had traveled from distant villages that have no accessible healthcare. Most conditions treated were preventable-including eye diseases and blindness caused by untreated infections, deformities, mentally challenged children resulting from untreated jaundice, and dental issues from a lack of basic dental hygiene. In addition to the mission in Ngapali, the team fitted and distributed over 150 prosthetic hands in Yangon. 

There is a change in the political environment with political, economic, and administrative reforms after the democratic elections in November 2015. There has been a top-down revolution of political, economic, and social transformation in Myanmar, and the leadership of the country is striving to promote the end of brutality by the military, and encourage peace and democracy within the populace.  Knowing there is hope for the government, many Burmese-born doctors are returning and encouraging their families and associates to return and rebuild the medical capabilities within the country.

The 2015-2016 medical mission was the third time that the Suu and Aung Foundations have brought a medical mission to Myanmar.  Each year the mission improves, most notably with an increase in the number of foreign-trained Burmese doctors, most residing and working in the United States. Provider-patient communication is enhanced by having healthcare personnel who can speak the native language and also affords the opportunity for medical students with Burmese heritage to work along-side medical students studying at the University of Yangon, thereby achieving short term goals of the Suu Foundation. 

There is much to learn by volunteering on a medical mission.  First, the importance of inter and intra-country relationships cannot be over-stated. The key success factor of the missions conducted by the staff and family of the Dr. Saw Mra Aung Foundation included having support personnel that work closely with the government and healthcare institutions within Myanmar while other personnel are connecting and recruiting support for personnel, financing, and medical supplies throughout the US and other countries. The inter/intra-country support made it possible to obtain medical supplies, needed transportation, and lodging requirements among other things. Second, one gains a better understanding of various cultures. In a time of increasing focus on cultural competency, nothing can replace “putting the shoe on the other foot” and experiencing being in a culture that is very unlike your own. Third, one has the opportunity to be creative. You do not find the latest and greatest devices; therefore, you are forced to be creative and use what limited resources you have to meet your objective. Finally, and most importantly, personnel are reminded that the mission not only providing healthcare, but the mission and all those that volunteered provide the gift of hope and reassurance to the people and patients in Myanmar that they have not been forgotten by the rest of the world.

For more information on upcoming medical missions to Myanmar organized by the Suu and Aung Foundations, please visit the Dr. Saw Mra Aung Foundation website at http://www.dsmafoundation.org/2015/03/about.html or contact Ms. Kelly Wheeler, kelly.a.wheeler23.civ@mail.mil.

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