First Person First Aid
As dawn breaks, the first patients arrive at the IRC-run clinic in the Site One refugee camp near the town of Mae Hong Son on the Thai-Burma border. People line the hallway waiting to be examined and the ward quickly fills with patients moaning in pain, attached to intravenous bottles or wearing bandages.
“It will be a busy day,” says Dr. Hnin Phyu, who oversees this and another clinic in the area.
The 32-year-old doctor hurries among the ward’s bamboo beds, listening to patient’s chests, checking temperatures and examining cuts and bruises.
Some 25,000 refugees live in two camps here, most of them ethnic Karenni. Like other minorities, many Karenni have fled Burma due to civil strife, political upheaval and economic stagnation. All told, an estimated 145,000 Burmese refugees, mostly ethnic minorities, live in nine camps strung along the border. The clinic at Site One is one of seven health facilities, serving altogether 33,000 patients, which the IRC help run in the border area.
“The camps are crowded and the situation is bad,” says Dr. Phyu, who began working for the IRC a year ago. “In these circumstances, infection spreads easily. We see a lot of diarrhea, skin diseases and respiratory ailments.”
After finishing medical school in the Burmese capital, Rangoon, Dr. Phyu volunteered to work in the western part of the country, where she got a first-hand look at the poor conditions of Burma’s rural hospitals.
“Even the most basic medicines, like painkillers, are hard to find,” she says. “Health services in remote areas are bad and, as a result, mortality is quite high.”
The situation is far better in the camps, according to Dr. Phyu.
“Here we can save lives with emergency care,” she says. “We also refer critical cases to Thai hospitals. Yesterday we had a patient with a bleeding ulcer. We managed to rush him to a hospital 40 minutes away. He would have died if he hadn’t made it in time.”
Landmines strewn along the border also pose a threat to life and limb.
“People venture out for firewood or to hunt, only to step on a mine,” Dr. Phyu says. “One time a man arrived with severe injuries from a mine blast. We provided first aid immediately and took him to a hospital for intensive treatment. He too survived.”
As the waiting room slowly empties, Dr. Phyu leans over yet another woman complaining of abdominal pain. She diagnoses the problem as dysentery and prescribes treatment.
Dr. Phyu says that she can’t imagine doing anything else; being a physician is her true vocation.
“I’ve wanted to be a doctor ever since I was a little girl,” she says. “My father was a doctor. I saw him helping people. That is what I feel like I’m doing now. And that’s what I want to continue to do.”
See more photos of the clinic and Dr. Phyu's work on our Voices from the Field blog.