April is Volunteer Appreciation Month. Each week this month, we'll be featuring new perspectives on ASRI’s work from some of the people who know it best: our volunteers.
Derek Richardson is a Clinical Instructor and Physician at the University of California, San Francisco General Hospital and served as an attending physician at the ASRI Clinic in January 2015. He was drawn to Health In Harmony for the "interesting and valuable goal in providing health care inside a larger umbrella of resource and community awareness" and discusses his experience on Mobile Clinic trips while volunteering with ASRI.
I went to volunteer at ASRI Clinic expecting the living situation to be more rustic than my apartment in San Francisco, and was happy to find how quickly I adapted to the friendly geckos and chilly mandi (shower) bathing in the "boy's house." Ma Unggal, our house helper, made the adjustment easy with hot ginger coffee every morning and piles of fresh fruit in the afternoon. The unbelievable beauty surrounding Sukadana clearly impacted the delivery of health care in an emotionally warm and safe environment, and made dealing with the struggles of day-to-day clinic care in the rural setting more uplifting than draining.
My harmonious life in Borneo was harshly challenged as soon as I joined the team to travel out of our home base to my first mobile clinic. Our team driver braved 12 hours of dirt roads into the hulu (headwaters where one of the furthest partner villages is located) after a rainstorm, trudging through puddles large enough to be called ponds in California and waiting for palm oil trucks stuck in roadside ditches to be hauled back to safety to clear the road. Thick clouds of mosquitoes, roads muddy enough to sink into, and my own fear of the enormous pythons our neighbors would intermittently haul out of the surrounding jungle showed local nature at its roughest—luckily, the mobile clinic truck gamely struggled through all this and got into our destination village late into the evening.
We borrowed the bathroom of a local Forest Guardian who worked with ASRI to trade off quick mandis to clean the mud off, spent the evening comparing tattoos with the local families, and piled onto the floor of the clinic long after dark to get some sleep before morning clinic. Two kittens, with the omnipresent Bornean stubby tails, found us and worked hard to keep us warm by lying across our faces as soon as we fell asleep. In the morning, covered in cat hair, muddy shoes, having no bathroom, and with patients lining up outside, I noticed that somehow every other member of the team looked clean and fully professional. I realized I still had things to learn about how to look good in Borneo.
Once the clinic opened, things quickly fell into place. A common complaint was blurry vision, so we built a pinhole occluder for acuity testing out of a sci-fi novel and a safety pin. Our team diagnosed ocular pathology and distributed glasses donated and carried to Borneo by volunteers, providing clear vision to people who had gone years without corrective lenses. We provided medicine for asthmatic children, discussed therapy techniques with a patient weakened by a stroke, and talked about how to avoid the aches and pains that can be triggered by the heavy farming and construction jobs undertaken out in the villages of the hulu.
After the long and muddy drive back to Sukadana, we compared stories with the other providers who'd ventured out the week prior (they had fewer cats in their beds and had their own bathroom). We'd been able to negotiate a memorandum of understanding with another village on the trip, just as remote but with more people who were unable to reach the primary ASRI clinic. Sitting on the beach near the clinic drinking coconut juice made for a beautiful planning session after our off-road adventure, but the opportunity to get to see how all sorts of natural landscapes impact the delivery of health care—both on idyllic beaches and in the rugged jungle—made the ASRI mission seem all the more crucial.