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Michelle Lau - Nomad and Medicine Project in Mongolia

My Nomad family

Going alone to a whole new country was something I had never thought I would do, so when I got off the plane at the airport in Ulaanbaator, Mongolia I was naturally very nervous. So it was a great relief when I saw a Projects Abroad staff member waiting for me. She then took me to my host family in the city and I immediately felt very welcome. I became part of the family very quickly and was very touched by the hospitality extended to a total stranger. Though they did not speak English well, I was able to communicate with signs and my very handy pocket Mongolian-English dictionary.

Ulaanbaator took me by surprise. It is a very modern city, bustling and teeming with traffic and people, as one would expect a big city to be. It soon became one of my favourite pastimes, taking the bus into the city and aimlessly walking around. I did not have to go very far before some interesting shop or museum turned up. Ulaanbaator is definitely a city that would not disappoint.

Shastin Third Central Hospital

Me manually ventilating a patient

I spent my first two weeks volunteering in the Shastin Third Central Hospital. I was attached to the head anaesthetist in the hospital, who specialised in neurosurgeries. As a result, I was given the opportunity to observe many neurosurgeries – brain aneurysm clippings, ventricular-peritoneal shunt insertions, tumour removals, spine operations, among many others. I was exposed to a whole variety of operations, some of which I was new to. I am proud to say that I witnessed the first ever embolisation procedure done under radiological guidance in Mongolia.

Upon learning that I was a medical student, I was given more responsibilities. I helped my doctor transfer patients to and from surgical wards, dressed wounds and I was even given the opportunity to ventilate patients during the whole length of their surgeries! I also received a lot of teaching from the surgeons, for which I was very grateful. The staff was very keen to make me a part of the team, and I found that being pro-active and enthusiastic allowed me more opportunities than I had expected.

My doctor was very insistent that I was exposed to as many aspects of the hospital as possible during my short attachment. As a result, I met many other doctors and observed many other ward rounds besides neurosurgery. I got to spend some time in the cardiology ward and observed vascular, eye and ENT surgeries. By the end of my two weeks in the hospital, I regretted my decision to spend such a short time there, but the experiences I had were unlike anything I would get as a medical student in a UK hospital.

My Nomad Project

Myself and the doctor I shadowed

My sadness at parting with the city I grew to love was immediately replaced with anticipation as the 4x4 left behind the main road and turned into a dirt road. I was on my way to my next adventure – two weeks in the countryside going back to the basics. On arrival a whole entourage of people greeted me. My host parents had with them members of the extended family to help welcome me, and I was very moved.

If there were only one word that could describe the countryside, it would be beautiful. My host family was staying in gers in the Tuv river valley, so there were mountains surrounding us, and a river that ran between. It was against this backdrop that I carried out my daily chores, which included helping my host mother milk cows in the mornings and evenings, cooking meals, getting water from the well, sweeping the gers, making yoghurt, and sometimes helping her sew fabrics for a new ger for their son who was getting married. I remember that I found milking cows quite a challenge.

However, by the end of my stay I thought I had gotten the hang of properly milking a cow, though by the time I finished milking one, my host mother would be done with five! My host father took me horse riding in the evening and there is no experience like it – riding off in the distance with the sun setting behind you. It was one of my fondest memories.

The wonderful children I babysat

My arrival to the countryside couldn’t have been timed more perfectly. On the second day I managed to experience how Mongolian nomads moved to another place. I helped to disassemble the ger, pack all the furniture onto the back of a truck, and reassembled everything when we got to the new area. In addition to this, it was the time when mares were milked and airaag (a fizzy alcoholic drink, not unlike sparkling beer) was made. I remember mixing the milk in a barrel that was put in a hole in the ground to keep it cool, chatting away with my host father with the little Mongolian I picked up. Whenever I had time off I would walk to any of the nearby hills with some other volunteers and climb to the top to reach an ‘ovoo’, which is a sacred structure made of rocks and valuables such as silk scarves. I would also take the children to the nearby river, and on the way we would often be stopped by people from other gers for some food and the popular ‘suutei tsai’, a salty milk tea that I had come to love. I was struck by the overwhelming hospitality that I was shown wherever I went. All my experiences here in the countryside were what I would call a ‘true Mongolian experience’.

Saying goodbye

It was with a heavy heart when the time came for me to say goodbye to Mongolia. I took home with me a lot of wonderful memories and stories. Nevertheless, I left Mongolia with the knowledge that one day I would find myself back there, in the ‘Land of the Blue Sky’.

Read more about Medicine and Nomad Project in Mongolia

Michelle Lau

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