In the summer of 2001, Drs. Jennifer Polley and Lily Lo journeyed to Qinghai province to work among displaced Tibetans living in the high mountains of western China. Dr. Lo tells of that trip:
We went with a group of long-termers stationed in Xining, traveling by bus, by foot, and by donkey to remote Amdo Tibetan villages scattered over the high mountains of western China. We were part of a team of medical personnel and engineers whose job was to survey the energy needs of the villages we visited, design wells and arrange for solar-powered cookers to be brought to the Tibetans living there. Our second job was to do health assessments among the villagers, set up medical clinics, and teach hygiene. The villagers had seldom seen western visitors and none of them had ever been examined by western doctors.
Needless to say, when word got out that a group of American physicians was coming to do medical clinics, hundreds of people–some traveling from as far as a three days’ walk–eagerly awaited us.
Dr. Polley and I treated kids for scabies, asthma, allergies, intestinal parasites, pneumonia, ear infections, and skin infections. Adults also came and wanted treatment for congestive heart failure, diabetes, and even depression. We had an internist with us, but he was overwhelmed by the sheer volume of elderly people needing his help, so it fell to us–two pediatricians–to try to remember the internal medicine and geriatrics we had learned back in medical school.
One woman in her mid-20’s was brought to us by a Buddhist monk. He said that her hands were crippled and she could not work. Because of that, no man would find her suitable as a wife. We examined her hands, their fingers horribly disfigured by rheumatoid arthritis. We had with us a few prednisone tablets which could temporarily alleviate her pain and swelling, but after they were gone, she would have to rely on aspirin, of which we only had a few months’ worth. Although she could experience a brief respite, her crippling disease would only progress. We told her this but also told her that we would pray for her healing because God could do what we could not.
Practicing medicine on the mission field always requires great creativity, as often, we are limited by the types of medicines and supplies that are on hand. We creatively manufactured spacer devices for asthma inhalers using old plastic bottles. Headlamps instead of otoscopes illuminated throats. And, as in America, duct tape goes a long way.
One older woman was brought to us at the end of the day by several concerned villagers. She suffered from arthritis and had fallen in her hut, unable to crawl out and ask for help. After several days, some neighbors found her lying helplessly on the floor of her tiny hut and brought her to us. We could see immediately that one wrist was broken and the other sprained. Thus, the crutches she used to hobble around were useless. Without any casting supplies, we were forced to fashion splints out of folded cardboard and duct tape. The result was serviceable and the lady went away in far less pain than when she came. The villagers agreed to check in on her every few days. (Incidentally, when I returned to that same village one year later on another mission trip, her wrist had healed completely.)
When we finished our work and the time came for us to leave the final village, a torrential downpour prevented us from departing the way we had originally planned. Instead, we would have to hike back out the 15 miles we came, treading on steep slopes now slickened by mud and rain.
But then an incredibly serendipitous thing happened, making the unexpected detour another example of God’s tender mercy. As our party stopped on the trail for a break, a Tibetan ferrying a young girl on his back came up to us and began speaking in Amdo.
Our translator informed us that this man had been trying to catch up to us for three days because his daughter had fallen and couldn’t move her arm. He had missed us at every village and had carried his daughter over 15 miles to find us. Finally he had given up and was on his way back to his home village when he spotted us.
As we gingerly removed the cloths encircling his daughter’s body, we discovered Drolma had a horribly deformed arm that clearly was fractured. Since we were ill-equipped to set her arm, and it had been three days already, her best hope for recovery was in the city, still five miles and a long bus ride away. In addition, because the man was Tibetan and the patient was a young girl, we knew they would be relegated to last on the list for priority at the hospital.
As we explained all of this to the anxious father, Drolma sat on the grass, nibbling on a cracker. Even through our exam of her obviously painful broken arm, Drolma did not wince or cry out, stoically bearing our attention. She said not a word, but eyed us calmly as she hungrily devoured the crackers and dried fruit we offered.
Her father earnestly pleaded for us to help so we agreed to let them accompany us back to the nearest city. He hoisted her up on his back again, we tied her close so she would not fall, and our party continued down the mountain.
When we arrived at the road, we found it had been washed out by a huge mudslide. Powerlines were down and only 4-wheel drive tractors could pass. We hitched a ride aboard a Chinese tractor-cum-bus, cramming a dozen of us onto a trailer made to hold about six. Nevertheless, we were deposited into the small city, where we found the hospital doors closed.
We found a room for the man and his daughter to stay in that night and in the morning, Dr. Paul Hudson, the very tall, very American male physician on our team, walked Drolma and her father to the hospital. Because of his gender, his nationality, his profession (and quite possibly his height), Paul was able to speak directly with the orthopaedic surgeon in charge. The Chinese surgeon agreed to personally look after Drolma and, because we had a tight schedule to keep, we had no choice but to leave her in his somewhat dubious hands, not knowing if he just wanted our money and had no plans at all for setting her arm.
We left the country shortly thereafter, but I was fortunate to return to Qinghai province the following summer. The missionaries reported that Drolma’s family wanted to meet the western doctors who helped them, so we traveled back to the high mountains and I found myself ushered into her grandmother’s mud and thatch cottage. Drolma peeked out from behind her mother’s dress, then quickly ran off. Grandma explained that Drolma’s father was away but would have liked to thank us personally if he had known we were coming. Then, a minute later, Drolma shyly re-entered the room, wearing a different dress. She repeated this disappearing and reappearing routine twice more, each time returning in a different dress. Clearly, she wanted to model her nice clothes and we smiled indulgently with each clothing change.
Later, I examined her formerly broken arm and found it completely healed, straight and well-aligned. She demonstrated how she could move it up and down and twist it around over her head and behind her back. And when we said goodbye, she waved it vigorously back and forth, running after us in yet another pink dress.
Incidentally, I also ran into that young woman with the crippling rheumatoid arthritis. The monk who brought her to us the summer before beamed with joy as he explained that shortly after we left, the young lady’s fingers began to uncurl, the swelling went away, and she was freed from pain. She was able to work again and the arthritis never came back. Now the monk described her not as the crippled woman who would never find a husband, but as the young lady with the beautiful smile.
Indeed, I think God Himself must have been smiling, his specialty turning ashes into beauty.