Myanmar Residents Cross Border for Health Care

Myanmar Residents Cross Border for Health Care


It’s 2 p.m. and the umpteenth baby
of the day is on the way. Staff at the Mae Tao Clinic in northern Thailand,
near the Myanmar border, get little rest. Twenty-eight-year-old Moe Win risked everything crossing
from Myanmar to reach the clinic to give birth. Like thousands of other ethnic minorities,
she and her husband, Thai Zin, couldn’t afford hospital care in Myanmar. The clinic accepts everyone who comes here
to give birth and covers all the costs. In Burma, unless you have money,
you can’t get good care if you are pregnant. Poor people are discriminated. Compared to here, the people are so
oppressed by the government. It’s coming out. Is it finished? It’s a girl. The birth brings relief, but the girl’s parents will
never forget their long journey to get here, even crossing a river by inner tube to cut time. When we arrived in Thailand, we had to wait for a
public taxi pick-up and it was pouring rain. The long journey was really tough
because my wife was in a lot of pain. Newborns are poked and protected
from scores of diseases. Babies at the Mae Tao Clinic have a much
better chance of surviving than those born in Myanmar,
where one in 10 die in childbirth. When the clinic opened its doors in 1988,
it was housed in an old barn. Its founder, Dr. Cynthia Maung, a Myanmar refugee,
was treating hundreds fleeing a military crackdown on democracy activists that claimed 3,000 lives.
Today, the clinic is a village. Its five doctors and 120 medical staff
care for 150,000 Myanmar refugees every year. Aside from the maternity ward, the clinic has
a pediatric unit, laboratory, blood bank, eye-care facility and space for 100 patients. The clinic receives U.S.$2 million to U.S.$3 million
a year from governments, private donors and NGOs, but the global economic crisis has shrunk funding. Although the clinic has 10 to 20 percent more cases
every year, it has yet to turn anyone away. When the Myanmar army drove her family off their land,
this woman, who asked to remain anonymous, escaped to the Mae Tao Clinic to have her baby. Doctors discovered her daughter has leukemia,
and they are doing what they can to treat her. The doctors and nurses here are very
compassionate, not like in Myanmar. It’s totally different.
The nurses come to check on me very often. Australian Nikki Wongdoo is one of three
Western doctors at the clinic. Does he have pain? Does it hurt? Wow, his liver is big, isn’t it? The boy has thalassemia, a genetic blood disorder
that exhausts him and leaves his belly swollen. He has regular blood transfusions, but
is still at risk of possible heart failure. So we’re going to keep transfusing another unit
tomorrow, and try to get up to hemoglobin seven. When you’re seeing patients one-on-one,
you do as much as you can, and, if you’re always busy, you can never finish
all of the work that you want to in one day. But if you become too overwhelmed, then I think
you’re probably not as effective as you could be. So you’ve got to just accept that there’s probably a
greater demand than what you can necessarily fulfill. Many of the clinic’s medics are also refugees from Myanmar.
Thai authorities allow them to stay inside the clinic. But like most patients, if they step outdoors,
they can easily be arrested and deported. You have to take a rest and the medicine will work. Some of the sickest patients are sent
to better-equipped Thai hospitals. Under a national health scheme, Thais
pay less than U.S.$1 for health care. Myanmar refugees have to pay the full cost of treatment,
although some non-profits offer to help with the bills. Two hour’s drive from the clinic, dozens of orphans are
building their future homes in a refugee camp. They are some of thousands of minority Karen forced to flee a
recent military assault by Myanmar forces in their homeland. Weeks ago, Ji Ji stepped on landmine in Myanmar’s Karen state.
Desperate for care, he crossed into Thailand. In efforts to reach more refugees like Ji Ji, the clinic
has trained a team of backpack medics. They go to nearby refugee camps, but also venture into the Myanmar jungle,
carrying medicine to treat injured villagers fleeing the conflict. Now he says he can start planning for the future. You have to keep it bandaged
because it isn’t fully healed yet. My leg is just hanging. You have to keep it bandaged longer. It’s not all healed yet. The wound isn’t all better. You have to
keep it bandaged. It’s not all better. Without proper care, Ji Ji’s wound could have gotten
even more infected and led to more complications. Now he says he can start planning for the future. Since it is the rainy season, whenever
I walk, I worry about falling down. If I had an artificial leg, it would be
a lot easier for me to walk. He says he hopes to find an aid agency
that can help get him a new leg. Karen women who fled Myanmar and now live at the
refugee camp have lost nearly everything. Weaving is a remnant from their former lives. Until they can
return home, they will keep the tradition going. But the refugees’ lives are tough and their futures uncertain. After more than 20 years heading the clinic, its founder,
Dr. Cynthia Maung, sees no end to her work. She says the clinic must keep running
as long as the army controls Myanmar. It is urgently needed to take responsibility
to prevent further damage. Just not only the responsibility
of the Burmese people. I think the people all over the world,
responsibility to protect the human dignity and to promote human rights in Burma. For thousands caught in the midst of the
conflict, the Mae Tao Clinic and its staff bring an amount of relief that’s hard to measure.

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