Taiwan’s medical group offers free health care to over 45 poor countries including Somaliland
A group of Taiwanese doctors, nurses, pharmacists, medical students and volunteers spent their Lunar New Year holidays in early February offering free health service for needy people in Botswana, a country bordered by South Africa to the south, Namibia to the west, and Zimbabwe to the east.
“I have celebrated the Lunar New Year in Africa since 2003,” said Liu Chi-chun, a Taipei-based dentist and Chairman of Taiwan Root Medical Peace Corps (TRMPC), a non-government and non-profit organization established in 1995.
Over the past 16 years, the TRMPC has finished 229 medical missions at home and abroad in more than 45 poor countries such as Macedonia in Southeastern Europe; Liberia, Swaziland, Madagascar, Senegal, Malawi, Ghana, Nigeria, Uganda, Kenya, Gambia and Somaliland in Africa; Mongolia, the Philippines, Vietnam, Cambodia, India, Sri Lanka, Kashmir and Afghanistan in Asia; Nauru and Solomon Islands in Oceania; the Dominican Republic, Honduras, Panama, Nicaragua and Haiti in Central America; and Bolivia, Paraguay, Peru, Ecuador, and the Amazon River Basin in South America.
Patients in these economically underdeveloped countries often came to ask for help on foot or by donkey cart.
“Some of these nations are unfamiliar to most Taiwanese,” Liu said, adding that local people always mistake Somaliland for Somalia — where pirates off the Somali coast have recently threatened international fishing vessels.
Somaliland, a little-known and unrecognized sovereign state in the world, declared its independence from war-ravaged Somalia in 1991 and has not been formally recognized by all countries except Ethiopia.
One day in May 2005, Liu received an e-mail from Farah Ali of Somaliland saying, “We both are orphans in the international community. Nevertheless, you have 20 some friends and you are rich, we only have one friend and we are poor. And the things you do are what my people need. Can you come to help us?”
Without medical staff, equipment and resources, the African country hardly provided basic health service for its people. One hospital, for example, has only 10 doctors due to budget constraints and doctors in the public hospitals only earn US$50 a month. The ratio of an eye specialist to patients is 1:200,000.
“Like most people, I knew little about Somaliland. But people deserve medical care regardless of race, religion, or politics,” said Liu, who decided to help the country train local nurses, dentists and surgeons after a visit to Somaliland in 2006.
In late February 2007, he led a 24-member team, including dentists, pediatricians, physicians, surgeons, pharmacists, nurses, laboratory technicians and volunteers, to the poor country for a two-week medical mission.
Chen Tzu-fei, a lecturer for the Department of Nursing at the Tzu Chi College of Technology and a volunteer of the TRMPC’s international aid programs for more than five years, took part in that mission.
But before heading for Somaliland, Chen faced a big challenge — her own failing health. Diagnosed with autoimmune disease in 2006, she was forced to take a six-month unpaid leave of absence from the college. Despite her poor health, she decided to help build a modern system of patient records, nursing rounds and hospital equipment inventories in the impoverished country.
A new way to celebrate the spirit of the Lunar New Year holidays for me was helping others on the distant Horn of Africa, she said.
Many Taiwan health professionals, like Liu and Chen, devote themselves to providing urgent medical care for victims of wars and natural disasters.
A massive earthquake hit Haiti on Jan. 12, 2010, leveling the country’s capital, Port-au-Prince. The Inter-American Development Bank estimated that the total cost of the worst disaster in the region in more than 200 years amounted to US$7.2-13.2 billion and a death toll from 200,000 to 250,000.
Three days after the quake, Liu immediately assembled a rescue squad with 64 medical members, including 19 doctors, 4 dentists, 5 pharmacists, 1 respiratory therapist, 1 medical technologist, 21 nurses, 1 medical student and 12 volunteers. They put together medical supplies weighing a total of eight tons and set off on Jan. 19. But on such short notice, many volunteers were unable to apply for their American visas.
Liu said that with the help of the American Institute in Taiwan, they obtained courtesy visas and that EVA Airways also gave them 40 free tickets from Taiwan to the U.S.
After arriving at ravaged Port-au-Prince, the medical team set up a tent clinic, an observatory room and a simple operation room with the help of Taiwanese businesspeople and David Chang, Assistant General Manager of Taiwan Overseas Engineering and Construction Company (OECC).
On the first day, about 300 to 400 people came to them for help, but from the second day, they had more than 600 patients every day. The total number of patients amounted to 3,542 during their six-day relief mission.
Some needed simple clean-up because of minor cuts and others had incision treatments. Those suffering bone fractures could go home on customized crutches by the OECC’s carpenters.
Ming-lon Young, a Miami-based cardiologist, has participated in TRMPC overseas medical missions since 2006.
One Haitian mother, Young said, came to them with her ten-day old baby. When the quake struck the capital, she just underwent a caesarean in a hospital and her baby had just come out. Local doctors and nurses, however, ran away before putting stitches in her stomach. She rolled down from an operating table with her baby. They were so lucky that rescuers saved them from the collapsed building.
A 91-year-old man, buried under the rubble for nine days, was found by a rescue dog. His daughter sent him to the tent clinic. With dehydration and bone fractures in his legs, the old man could not receive skeletal traction. The TRMPC doctors instead used intravenous drip and antibiotics to cure him.
After getting better, the old man on a stretcher was sent back home by two doctors Kelvin Lee and Jason Litten. They decided to give him the stretcher for sleeping because his shabby home only had haystacks.
Haitian doctors and nurses hired by the General Hospital should work night shifts to take care of their patients, but they disappeared, Young said. As their patients were in critical condition, they just stood there and did nothing.
For three consecutive nights, Liu sent about 15 medical volunteers to the General Hospital, where its patients stayed in the tents built by the U.S. military. Many patients’ wounds became infected without regular treatments.
“It was just like a living hell when you heard patients howling in pain,” Young said, adding that before cleaning up their festering wounds and changing their bandages, the medical staff needed to give them a shot of morphine to ease their pain.
Several patients from babies to old people died in one night. The medical corps tried to save the life of an 80-year-old woman with her leg in plaster, cardiopulmonary failure and atrial fibrillation, but their effort failed.
While offering free medical services for poor countries, doctors may have mixed feelings because they see their patients die. With flea bites and sleep deprivation, they get exhausted very soon.
“Our doctors, nurses and volunteers sacrifice their 7-10 days of annual leave to help needy people from Taiwan and overseas,” the TRMPC chairperson said. “Each international medical mission such as an African trip costs them NT$75,000 – a two-month pay of a registered nurse in a hospital.”
“In Taiwan, doctors are expected to earn loads of money. Doing volunteer work, I may make less money than them, but I’m happier because I have lots of good friends from around the globe.”
In December 1995, Liu embarked on his first voluntary medical mission to a native tribe in Jianshih Township, Hsinchu County. Since then, he has gained practical experience of many unforgettable medical services worldwide, including the TRMPC’s first international aid program at a Kosovar refugee camp in Macedonia in 1999.
Liu even mortgaged his house to support his organization’s medical missions. And his son and daughter studying in college in the U.S. always take their friends every summer vacation to work as volunteers on medical missions to Central and Southern American countries.
“My next goal is to provide our services for people in the Caucasus area such as Georgia.”