Wednesday, April 29, 2009


Monday morning. It's our last day at the Orkhan Hospital medical site. I'm still not used to the idea that our clinic is set up on the parking lot of a hospital. This just seems so bizarre to us.

During the previous two days out here, our doctors were given the names and locations of some people who were unable to come to us, so they made plans to go to them. Think of it - making house calls in Mongolia! Without going into much detail, they told us later that they saw some really pitiful situations. I can only imagine. So many of these people are without enough food, and their living conditions are hard-scrabble to say the least. That's bad enough, but imagine being elderly and ill, in such a situation.

At the clinic, we only saw people who were given numbers and turned away on Saturday, who could not be seen due to the late hour. There were a few newcomers who would not accept that they wouldn't be seen, and just continued to hang around the tent, scuffing their feet in the dust. Naturally, they were eventually seen.

Imagine our surprise when, toward the end of the day, we realized that some of the people requesting to be seen were actually on staff at the hospital! There were two or three nurses, and one doctor, still wearing his scrubs and surgical cap. He wanted his blood pressure checked, and then wanted to see one of our doctors. We thought this extremely odd, until the doctor he saw picked up on his heart murmur, and commented to him about it. Then we understood. He knew he had a heart murmur, and was testing us, to see if our people would find it, too.

After we had processed our last patient through triage, the Mustangs began to tear our tent down. This took about ten minutes. Those boys know what they're doing! Once our tent was gone, there just wasn't much more we could do, so we took the opportunity to walk around a bit and peek at the other groups in action. I went to the pharmacy ger to see if I could help, where things were still busy. Pharmacy is the last operation to close, of course, and since there were still people waiting in line to see the doctors, naturally there were still people arriving at the pharmacy with prescriptions in hand. Chris and company had things well-organized, and really didn't need any help from me, but I hung around anyway.

Finally I was given the job of removing some acetaminophen (think Tylenol) tablets from their blister packs and putting them in little paper envelopes, ten to a package. Since they were so nicely packaged already, I wondered why this was necessary. Chris explained. It seems that the tablets were from a Russian pharmaceutical company, and therefore were regarded with suspicion and considered inferior by the Mongols. He said if we just handed them the tablets in their original packaging, the people probably would accept them, but wouldn't take them when they got home. I guess old hurts and betrayals die hard. So, we transferred the tablets to a hand-marked envelope, and everyone was happy.

We went one last time to the little cafe on the highway, where lunch had been arranged for us and some of the senior staff from the hospital. Through the capable assistance of our faithful translators, we were able to converse with those folks and get to know a bit more about them. Their life is not easy. They do the best they can with limited resources, limited trust, and yes, limited knowledge. There is poverty and want, and physical and societal disease all around them. They battle superstition and false beliefs constantly, not only in their patients, but in themselves as well.

When we finished up, we bade the flies a final farewell and climbed back into our vans and departed Orkhan, leaving the very capable Mustangs to dismantle the pharmacy ger and return it to the CTW compound. We were on our way back to Darkhan, and a memorable and moving experience awaited us there. We were going to have dinner together for the last time in the dining room, and then would be treated to an evening with the children! This is always the high point of the trip.

Dinner was very special, served buffet-style, with warming trays and everything! There were several meat dishes, and as always, we weren't entirely sure about the origins of the meat, but it was nicely prepared and tasty, and I've learned that when in Mongolia, it's best not to question, just eat and enjoy! Some of the dishes were chicken, which I now know is considered something of a delicacy and a treat in Mongolia. It's not like at home, where one eats chicken because it's cheaper than beef (among other reasons.) In Mongolia, chicken is not plentiful, and is not cheap. When one is served chicken in a family's home, it's an honor.

After dinner, we had the ceremony of the hospitality scarves. I'm sure they have another name in Mongolian, but since I don't know what it is, I've given them that name in my own mind. This is a tradition in Mongolia, and is usually shared by the mission's children with visitors to their little world. When one visits a traditional home in Mongolia for the first time, a member of the family will present the visitor with a white scarf. If the visitor is invited back, they may be presented with a blue scarf on the second visit. It's likely that this custom has its roots in Buddhism. The blue scarves are in the color I call Buddha Blue, and I noticed on some of the ovoos that we saw along the highway that the blue strips of cloth tied on as prayers or offerings looked a lot like the blue scarves.

One might wonder why, in the Christian family at CTW, anything with Buddhist overtones would be permitted. I suppose it's a lot like some of our own traditions in America. In my own home, we always colored eggs at Easter and hid them for the children to find, and then they would hide them again and again until they were too battered to eat. I think we all know that much of the trappings that surround our Easter have pagan origins, but it means nothing to us. We have given them our own spin, and enjoy the color and the fun, and the delighted cries of little children as they find another pretty egg. In the same way, I think the presentation of a scarf to a visitor in Mongolia now carries with it just one idea - hospitality and honor, nothing more.

There is a hidden warning here, I think. It's easy to see how pagan traditions can lose their former meaning and become just something that we do as a society. Easter eggs, Christmas trees and the like all have a place of honor in our collective consciousness, and we no longer recognize the origins and the significance formerly attached to those things. We have adopted them into our Christian lives and never give a thought to what they may have meant a long time ago.

I think we also know that one doesn't have to be a Christian to celebrate Christmas, or even Easter. Is it also possible that because of the general acceptance of these traditions by everyone, that we Christians also lose sight of the real, present-day meaning and significance of the occasions that they represent? When we sing "Joy to the World", do we really
feel the joy, or is it just a pretty carol? Does "Christ Arose" really stir grateful emotion in our hearts, or do we just enjoy the pretty harmony? Well, those are questions for wiser theologians than I will ever be, so I'll leave it there. Anyway, I now have two scarves - one from last year and one from this year, and I value them highly.

There is much more in the original journal entry, but I'm going to break it here, and put the rest in the next blog. There will be pictures in that one, and you'll get to meet some of the Mongolian children. Tune in later...