It all started when I overheard my father telling my mother about a medical trip that he would not be able to attend due to a conference. It would have faded into memory if I had not overheard the key word: “Omgoi”.
Omgoi? Here was a word that brought to mind crisp, cool air and morning dew, hill tribe villages, red dirt and the mighty crow of the rooster at the break of dawn. Albeit a largely undocumented province, past 2Develop trips with NIST to Maeramit village had landed this rural landscape a place in my heart. “Omgoi?” I remarked, “Sign me up!”
After some research, I discovered that the Princess Mother’s Medical Volunteer/ มูลนิธิแพทย์อาสาสมเด็จพระศรีนครินทราบรมราชชนนี (PMMV/พอสว) was established in 1964. The green-pocketed project’s main objective is to provide primary healthcare services in rural areas with scarce accessibility to healthcare facilities through mobile medical units, which includes doctors, nurses, dentists and pharmacists.
Ironically, I was neither qualified as a doctor, nurse, dentist nor pharmacist. I wasn’t a professor or part of the media team, either. In fact, I had not even obtained my high school diploma. Nonetheless, I was proud to brandish officially the title of “Contributing Volunteer”, and unofficially “Youngest And Least Medically-Qualified”.
Anxiety should have been inevitable. After all, I was going alone: no parents, no siblings, no friends. However, I found myself less apprehensive and more eager to make new friends and meet new people. Nothing on this adventure failed to exhilarate me: right from the very first step onto the small military plane, to the last four-wheel vertical drop down a mountainous precipice.
The first day was the easiest day – a few hours spent in a four-wheel drive void of any on-foot adventure. Several days and several kilometers of rigorous hiking later, we would lament it as “the day that brought us false hope”. There was a positive correlation between the number of days we had been there, the distance of the hike to the next village, and the mental motivation required to reach the new destination.
Every hour and every drop of sweat shed was worth it; for every village, children would line up outside the community center and offer each of us an individual chirrup of “Sawasdee ka” to the calls of “Mor ma laew (the doctor is here)”. I can still recall the moment I reached Mae Hong Tai fatigued and limping, yet somehow rejuvenated by the pride of being part of the PMMV.
True, I could not help out the nurses in communicating with the Karen villagers, I could not help the doctors, for my knowledge of diagnoses was limited, and I could not help the dentists, who extricated decayed tooth after tooth and mopped up seeping blood. However, I was not useless. I found my home in the pharmacy unit.
I helped out at anything I could: from packaging pills, writing dosage labels to handing over appropriate medicines at appropriate times – seemingly menial tasks, but there’s only so much an unqualified volunteer can do. After a while, P’Jack – the Omgoi Hospital pharmacist – put me in charge of the children’s medicine. P’Kee – another pharmacist – taught me the names and classifications of each strangely labeled bottle. Dicloxa, Amoxy, Salbutamol, CPM…by the end of the trip, I had mastered what seemed like an entirely new language.
In the second village, I witnessed a lymph node surgery. The man, probably in his mid-50s, was lying supine on an impromptu operating table made of wooden desks crammed together and draped in a single sheet of plastic. Surgical lighting consisted of two cellphone flashlights held by one doctor, while the other doctor wielded a scalpel. The metallic stench of blood hung heavy in the air. In that moment, I thought of the sleek, high-tech operating rooms back in Bangkok. The operation’s magnitude was overwhelming: the risk of complications and the complete absence of emergency aid. After all, there was no ambulance waiting around the corner. My newfound respect for those doctors flourished.
Forgotten heroes do exist. Like the doctors, dentists, pharmacists and nurses, the four-wheel drivers were also volunteers. They became our sole reliance in delivering medical supplies, food and our baggage. I did not realize their significance until I took the drive to the final village. In contrast to the smooth, tarmacked main roads, the potholed, winding dirt paths we took were made worse by overnight rainfall – at one point, a landslide had impeded upon sections of the road, making it necessary to forge a new path in an elaborate scheme of excavating, roping and heaving. Every few seconds, a different voice would be heard from the walkie-talkie: “Slippery path up ahead!” “Push on the count of three.” “Fourth car, are you okay there?” Their teamwork was impeccable and we would be nothing without them.
It’s peculiar to imagine how a last-minute decision that I volunteered for three days in advance, has the gravity to remain with me for the rest of my life. Likewise, it’s also peculiar to envision how a three-hour mobile clinic in a remote village has the potential to heal a villager for the rest of their life. Not only did I gain new knowledge in medicine; I also became the newest generation of a fifty-year legacy, established under the compassion of the Princess Mother.
Sure, the relentless travel occasionally put me on the verge of giving up: my body ached, the shower was numbing and there was still a hike and a village to go. It’s torture. But then I think of all the villagers, most of who will live their lives without setting foot beyond their settlement, let alone a hospital. I think of the medical care we delivered, and the lives we improved.
I realize, finally, that the motivation to tread onwards is not in my head. It’s in my heart.