Monday, October 13, 2014

Medical Missions to Mongolia

Last month I went on my third trip to Mongolia with a Christian medical organization called Medical Education International. MEI has been going to Mongolia since 1998, and their missions philosophy is to provide continuing education to physicians in the host country, to assist in patient care when asked, and to use both as an opportunity to share the love of Christ with whomever we meet.

I'll give you some background on Mongolia, since most Americans don't know much about the place (I didn't either, prior to my first trip there). Sometimes still called "Outer Mongolia," it is not part of China; rather, it is the independent sovereign nation of Mongolia. Don't get this confused; Mongolians really hate it if you do, and they're a feisty bunch. You may recall that hundreds of years ago the Chinese went to a great deal of trouble to build a really, really big wall...whose sole purpose was to keep those feisty Mongolians out. The first wall didn't work out too well, so they built version 2.0. The Chinese and Mongolians still don't really get along: a thousand years of Hatfield and McCoy stuff will do that.

In the early 13th century Chinggis Khan united the feuding Mongol tribes into a force unlike anything the world had ever seen (while westerners often spell it "Genghis," Mongolians pronounce his name with their "ch-" consonant, and spell it in English as I did). Chinggis' warriors were ruthless, and they mastered the art of shooting an arrow while riding on horseback. At an astonishing pace, the Khans amassed the largest empire in history, stretching from Korea and China (Chinggis got over/through version 1.0 of that big wall) to Poland. Chinggis' grandson Khublai Khan moved his capital to Beijing, where he hosted Marco Polo as a guest.

The Khans' Empire eventually collapsed under its own weight. Mongolia was under Chinese control during the 18th and 19th centuries, but in 1924 she became the world's second communist nation. For most of the latter 20th century, Mongolia was an Asian equivalent of East Germany: while not formally part of the USSR (like the "-stan" republics to her west), she was under heavy Soviet influence and protection, serving as a valuable buffer between Russia and the mutually mistrusted Chinese. Around the time the Berlin Wall came down, similar political upheaval occurred in Mongolia: the communists were thrown out, the constitution rewritten, and free elections held for the first time in seventy years.

Mongolia today is a country over twice the size of Texas, with just shy of three million people, nearly half of whom live in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar ("U.B." to the locals). U.B. sits at the same latitude as the northern reaches of Maine, on the opposite side of the globe (i.e., twelve time zones ahead of Eastern Time), and 4,500 feet above sea level. To the north are the forests that continue up into Siberia; to the south is the Gobi Desert. U.B. is a sprawling place, with a mix of decades-old Soviet apartment buildings, new construction, and yerts (the traditional Mongolian tent home) squatting on vacant tracts of land. It ranks near the very top on the list of cities with the worst air quality in the world, in large part due to oppressive traffic congestion. And, as in most third-world cities, driving is done mostly by horn. 

Outside of the capital, Mongolia is one of the most sparsely populated places on earth, with a countryside still roamed by semi-nomadic herdsmen. It's also insanely cold. If you're curious, look up the weather for U.B. sometime in January (or ask me; I keep it on my iPhone app). Oh, and there's the wind, too. In their own version of "it's not the heat; it's the humidity," in Mongolian winters, it's not the 30 below zero temperatures that are so bad; it's the 40-mph winds that roar across the steppes. This combines to make the wind chill around minus infinity.

Under Soviet-style communism, cults of personality (as well as more traditional faiths) were prohibited. In particular, cultural pride in the triumphs of Chinggis Khan was suppressed. But since 1990, and with the dawn of capitalism, Mongolians have been making up for lost time. Anything and everything that anyone wants to sell has the big man's name on it. There's a Chinggis Bank, a Khan Bank, and a Chinggis Khan Bank. This is just as well, since his picture is on all the money anyway. Christianity, too, was essentially nonexistent prior to 1990: the common view among missionaries is that there were then fewer than a dozen Christians in the entire country. The glass-half-full picture is that there are now around 60,000 believers, and the church is growing; the glass-half-empty version is that this is still only 2% of the population. A significant challenge is that the underlying historical religious tradition is one of Shamanism (essentially a dark pantheistic mysticism) mixed with various flavors of Buddhism, making for a grim spiritual background presence. But believers in Mongolia have their eyes on their own part in the Great Commission, noting that it is one of the few countries that allows for relatively easy visa passage to Russia, China, Kazakhstan, and (believe it or not) North Korea.

Emblematic of the healthcare needs of the country is the fact that the average male life expectancy is only around 62 years, due to high rates of stomach and liver cancer, heavy cigarette smoking (in addition to the aforementioned poor air quality), and epidemic alcoholism (the flagship liquor brand is, of course, Chinggis Vodka). Women suffer from more advanced stages of breast and gynecologic cancers: mammograms and PAP smearsare rare, so the diseases are often not detected early. In light of this, our particular MEI trip revolved around a week-long cancer conference in conjunction with the Mongolian National Cancer Center in U.B. On our team were physicians from a variety of specialties, and we each gave a few lectures for the conference (I was interviewed by a local TV station after one of my talks...something my seven-year-old thinks is the coolest thing ever). I also had the opportunity to help care for a few patients undergoing surgical resection of pancreatic, liver and stomach cancers.

Another point of emphasis for MEI is networking with missions organizations that are on the ground full-time in Mongolia. There's a network of Christian veterinarians that provide support and education to herdsmen in the countryside (run by a couple from Oklahoma), a prison ministry (run by a saintly woman from New Zealand), and a hospice ministry (run by a nurse from Michigan). There are a variety of churches in U.B., at various stages of maturity and with various specific points of emphasis, including one shepherded by a pastor named Puje, where our team worshipped one Sunday. Puje also runs a church for the homeless, and a few of us spent a day conducting a clinic for those folks. This evolved fairly quickly into a washing feet (literally) and prayer clinic more than anything else, but the upshot was hopefully to show these poorest among us that they had dignity...at least in our eyes, and in those of God. 

It's been an honor for me to play a very small part in what God is doing in Mongolia, and a real pleasure to minister in some small way to these lovely people.

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