Medicine & Healthcare in Mongolia by Annie Yu
When I informed my mum that I wanted to join Projects Abroad’s Medical placement in Mongolia for two months, it was not a pretty sight. Although she never agreed with my adventure, even after I arrived in Ulaanbaatar, the moment I stepped out the plane after 18 hours, I knew this was going to be one of the most meaningful summers in my life.
Choosing my project
As a first year student in the University of California, San Diego, who not only majors in Biology but recently applied for the Global Health minor, I was eager to try out volunteering in a completely different country, and Projects Abroad offered the perfect programme in such a mysterious and friendly country.
Project Abroad’s Medical placement in Mongolia stood out in that it actually offered hands-on experience, even for a university student like me who had minimal medical knowledge.
My Medical placement
The first day I arrived at my placement, the clinic section of the Epidemiology Hospital of Mongolia, I was surprised at how different it was compared to my university’s hospital. Instead of one big room for all patients, this department had multiple rooms labelled with their own infectious diseases, such as chicken pox and hand, foot or mouth disease, all in Mongolian of course.
My supervisor, Dr.Bachka, showed me around and introduced me to all the staff, none of whom could speak much English, if at all. At first, I was really worried about communicating with the staff, but that worry soon vanished as I later learned that not only are Mongolians extremely friendly, but, as nurses and doctors, they were always looking after me. Even when we spoke different languages to each other and none of us understood what the other said, we managed to communicate and shared many laughs.
As for my duties, I was required to go to the hospital from 9am to 4pm or later. Wearing the uniform provided for me by the programme, I felt like a little nurse as I followed my supervisor from room to room to examine the patients.
In the beginning, she would translate for me what the patients’ complaints were, the symptoms she observed, and then her diagnosis and suggestion or treatment for the disease. As a Biology major, I was absolutely thrilled to see so many different kinds of diseases, most of which were rarely seen in the United States: chicken pox; meningitis; hepatitis A, B, and C; hand, foot or mouth disease; dysentery; mumps; erysipelas; and many more.
After a few weeks, my supervisor allowed me to feel the bumps on the patients, check their faeces, and even diagnose their diseases. During our free time, she and the other two doctors would teach me many medical terms and conditions, even lending me medical dictionaries to study whenever I needed.
Besides the clinic, I had the opportunity to study in other departments of the hospital as well. The first one was having an outdoor adventure with a group of doctors, nurses, and drivers all over Ulaanbaatar to visit the families that called for medical help. It was a fascinating experience as I followed them to an urban apartment, a rural house, and a ger (traditional Mongolian tent) at the edge of the capital and out in the open grass!
My last days in Mongolia
The last few days of my stay in Mongolia was quite upsetting as it did not feel two months had passed already. Luckily, the week before I left, it was the national hospital staff holiday, so my supervisor invited me to go away with the whole hospital to the countryside. Excited and grateful, I remember walking rather fast on my way to the hospital that morning to meet up.
The first thing I saw when I stepped in, however, was a giant pig lying on the kitchen table next to the front desk. Shocked, I watched as the nurse’s husband skilfully chopped up the pork and skinned it: a very memorable event and an interesting picture to keep forever. After about an hour of driving, we arrived in cars at the Mongolian Hotel: gers. It was then that I felt the close bonds Mongolians had with each other even when they were not blood related.
A department of people shared one giant tent and the whole day we just chatted and ate. Sausages, cucumbers, bread, candies and more were passed around and shared nonstop, literally. Just when I thought we were done eating dinner, my supervisor announced it was time for dinner. The head nurse stood up to sing and dance with everyone cheering and clapping. Around midnight, we all went to the open area for a bonfire dance.
If I could choose again, I would still choose this placement, and Mongolia. If I could change anything it would be to study the language more, talk to more people via body language, ask more questions, and enjoy myself even more!