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No respite for the weary

Year: 1998
Setting: Yi villages, Yunnan province, China
Position: Medical mission leader

It is about one week before Christmas and we have been working in various villages examining patients, providing treatments and delivering public health messages ranging from using clean water to building latrines to washing hands before meals to dental hygiene. The days are long and cold, the food unsavory and sleep scarce because of the coldness of our housing. A couple of us catch a virus and become sick. But now I am on the plane back to the lion city with all my Singaporean Chinese colleagues. On this trip, I learned as much from them about the social life in the city-state as from observing the living conditions of the Yi people.

The plane takes off and reaches cruising altitude. I relax and begin to have a good time in a warm, dry and familiar environment. Alas, a few minutes later the pilot’s voice resonates throughout the cabin: “Is there a doctor on the plane?” If I had the intention of waiting, in the hope that someone else would raise a hand, my strategy would have been shattered in a nanosecond. As soon as the announcement ends, every single head of the delegation turns toward me with the same expression: “Why don’t you go?”

Within a minute I find myself examining an overweight, middle-aged German lady who has been vomiting in the toilets. I administer a dose of an anti-emetic medication. As she begins feeling better, I am able to rule out gall bladder stones and other serious conditions. I also discover that she is a Christian and has been celebrating the holiday with her family and friends, eating two large pieces of dark chocolate before boarding. As I return to my seat, I reflect on another example of the big divide in this world. Within a few hours I have been confronted with two extremes: Food deprivation and misery on one side, and food excess and indulgence on the other.

Lesson for the doctor: A doctor is always on call.

Yann Meunier, MD, is the health promotion manager for the Stanford Prevention Research Center. He formerly practiced medicine in developed and developing countries throughout Europe, Africa and Asia. Each week, he will share some of his experiences with patients in remote corners of the world.

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