Taiwan doctor takes medicine, magic to Burkina Faso
- Publication Date：11/18/2012
- Source： Taiwan Today
- By Grace Kuo
Hot weather, red dirt and mud houses were the first things Huang Yu-yen, now a family physician at Taipei City’s Mackay Memorial Hospital, experienced when he arrived in Burkina Faso in December 2007.
Huang, a graduate of Chung Shan Medical University in central Taiwan’s Taichung City, would be there for the next 10 1/2 months to participate in the Taiwan Youth Overseas Service, a program initiated in 2001 allowing men to perform alternative military service in ROC diplomatic allies.
“A speech by Lien Chia-en, a doctor who did his military service in Burkina Faso in 2001, lit a fire inside me,” Huang said. “I was fascinated by Lien’s deeds in the African nation—building orphanages, digging wells and promoting the activity of exchanging trash for clothes.
“I thought rather than spend a year doing boring things in military camps in Taiwan, why not do something more meaningful abroad? For one, I could practice medicine, and for another, I could live and work in a totally different place.
“It was an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” he stressed.
Participation in the program is determined by lottery, according to Huang. For the medical mission, only six out of 42 had a chance to serve in Burkina Faso, Sao Tome and Principe, and Malawi that year. “I got lucky,” he said.
“Actually, I drew a lot for Sao Tome and Principe, but as it seemed to me more like an island resort where many Portuguese go for vacation, giving you the impression that you are not in Africa, and because I really wanted to experience a real African life, I switched with one of the other guys,” Huang said. “Besides, in Burkina Faso I would have the opportunity to learn French, the country’s official language.”
After a month of basic military training and two months of professional training including lessons on cooking, computers, international etiquette, interpersonal relationships and language, Huang departed for Burkina Faso Dec. 4, 2007. After a 31-hour flight, transferring in Bangkok, Amsterdam and Paris, he finally arrived in the landlocked West African nation.
Huang noted that his previous impressions of Africa all came from movies and the Internet—very hot, red dirt and black people. “I’ll never forget how my first view of the continent confirmed those impressions,” he said.
On his first Thursday in Burkina Faso, members of the medical mission visited a remote village for free medical consultations. “Our van left the asphalt for dirt roads, traveling through underbrush and streams, and finally arriving in a village of empty mud houses that looked exactly like those in films—round with pointed roofs. Children played by the roadside as we began to see patients in the health station.
“The scene made a huge impact on me, in a good sense, because I love adventures and experiencing new things.”
Medical facilities in Burkina Faso are very limited compared with most countries, according to Huang. The nation, measuring 274,200 square kilometers with an estimated population of 17 million, has only three first-class hospitals and nine regional hospitals.
“The most advanced health checkup that Friendship Hospital, a second-class medical institution in the nation’s third largest city, Koudougou, can offer is an x-ray,” Huang said. “In Taiwan, basic examinations offered by almost any hospital include ultrasound, computed tomography scans and magnetic resonance imaging.”
Given these conditions, the role of the Taiwan medical mission, based in Koudougou, is to make weekly consultation tours to remote outlying villages including Bourou, La, Niakada, Sogpelse, Soula and Woro, and provide assistance to Friendship Hospital.
“The two sides collaborate by sharing experience regarding treatment, performing surgeries and otherwise caring for patients together,” Huang said. “The hospital also provides examination rooms where we can carry out work in internal medicine, surgery, obstetrics and gynecology.”
Without recourse to advanced medical technologies and equipment, all he and his partners could rely on was stethoscopes, he recalled.
“We often felt helpless, realizing that if the patients were in Taiwan, we could arrange for a CT scan, an MRI, or gastroscopy to discover the cause of the illness in the shortest time possible. The most advanced examination the Taiwan medical mission could offer was ultrasound, which couldn’t provide sufficient information in many cases.”
Huang lamented the deaths of patients who could have been saved under less adverse conditions. “A 20-year-old man came to us, gasping for air with every step and unable to walk more than a few meters at a time. After a series of checkups, we finally discovered through ultrasound that he was suffering from mitral valve insufficiency. It had developed into heart failure after being ignored over a long period.
“In Taiwan, doctors would have arranged for him to undergo cardiac surgery, and replaced the valve with an animal or prosthetic one, but not a single heart surgeon was to be found in Burkina Faso. Patients could go to neighboring countries such as Cote d’Ivoire or Ghana, or even France and Belgium for the operation, but this guy couldn’t afford anything like that. All we could do was give him medicine to alleviate the symptoms.
“Surprisingly, he was much better the next time he visited us, so much so that he rode a bike for the trip; however, two weeks later, we heard he had died.”
When the man developed a fever, his family had no means of getting him to the nearest hospital, 65 kilometers away, Huang said. “To learn that he died from such a common ailment really felt terrible.”
Huang, who is a certified magician, used magic tricks to cheer up his patients and boost his own morale. “It started when I came across an amputee who was always unhappy when he came to get his medicine changed. So I’d have a couple of simple tricks ready for him whenever he showed up. Although there were times the magic failed, it didn’t matter. The most important thing was to see the patient happy.”
Soon Huang was performing magic for passersby on the road in his free time. “Magic is an art that can entertain people and make them forget their pains and troubles. It can also draw two complete strangers into a relationship. My thought at the time was very simple—to bring people a little happiness through magic.”
The local people had no previous exposure to magic tricks, and their reactions were very direct, he said. When he made a coin disappear in his hands in front of a young boy, the child reacted with a scream of surprise and ran to get his friends to come enjoy the show.
“Burkinabe do not hide their emotions, responding in a very sincere and straightforward manner.” There were times when people were so amused by his magic that they hammered on him with their hands or beat their chests. “This is one thing I like about magic—the direct, strong feedback from the audience.”
According to Huang, serving in Burkina Faso broadened his horizons and allowed him to realize how blessed he is. “Seeing all the people in need of medical help, and their degree of poverty, I’m very thankful for Taiwan’s highly developed health care system.
“Moreover, in Taiwan you can find anything you want, from entertainment to food. I should cherish what I’ve got here.”
The greatest effect his experience in Burkina Faso had was to make him change his ambitions, he said. “Originally, I wanted to be a psychiatrist because it requires a lot of doctor-patient communication, and I am very fond of chatting with others. But after my trip to Africa, I realized family physicians have more comprehensive knowledge of diseases, and thus can help more people.
“They also have to spend a lot of time talking with patients and getting to know them, which suits my personality.”
Still outgoing and adventurous, Huang said he remains interested in overseas medical work. “If there’s a chance, I’d like to join Doctors Without Borders to serve more people, experience the world and make new friends.” (THN)
Write to Grace Kuo at firstname.lastname@example.org