In 2013, I was a volunteer teacher at a village primary school in Gonghe, a township in the northwestern Chinese province of Qinghai. While I was there, a little boy had an accident when playing outside and severed one of his ears. Because Gonghe was so remote and there were no doctors nearby, we were unable to salvage the ear. The boy ended up permanently disabled.
Soon afterward, my colleague Zhao Xiaoqing and I traveled deep into Sichuan — a province in southwestern China — and Qinghai, respectively. I witnessed firsthand the conditions in the latter while teaching at an all-girls school in Darlag County. Located 4,000 kilometers above sea level, the average annual temperature in Darlag is below freezing; it snows all year, except in July and August. Due to local shortages of doctors and medicine, children who catch colds or the flu in Darlag are at higher risk than those born in the lowlands. I remember hearing the sobs of little girls suffering from the flu late into the night.
Although the Chinese government offers free medical support to poor families when a member is seriously ill, scarce infrastructure in remote mountain areas means that people with nonserious diseases in places like Gonghe and Darlag can suffer life-threatening complications: Broken bones might lead to amputation, while the flu might bring on pneumonia.
In spring 2014, the organization Zhao and I work for — the Rainbow-Bridges Children’s Medical Support Association — launched a program to fund medicine for children in remote areas suffering from common illnesses and noncritical injuries. We sent medical supplies to the mountainous regions we had visited and trained other volunteer teachers to administer them accordingly. We also enlisted the help of specialized medical professionals to provide advice remotely when medical emergencies occurred.
In one of our early projects, we donated common children’s medicines to five elementary schools in the Liangshan Yi Autonomous Prefecture in southwestern China’s Sichuan province. Soon after we started the project, a young boy was accidentally poked in the eye while playing. Many people rushed to help him, but he needed a doctor, and the nearest hospital was hours away. Despite the community’s best efforts to get him there quickly, it was too late. He lost his eye and today wears a prosthetic.
Malnutrition is comparatively common in Liangshan and is exacerbated by the lack of clean drinking water and unsanitary living conditions. Rainbow-Bridges supplied medicine to children at Le’er Primary School in Liangshan suffering from intestinal parasitic infections spread through infected drinking water, which can cause abdominal cramps, diarrhea, and dysentery. The deworming medication we sent them in March 2015 is easily obtainable at most pharmacies, but hard to come by up in the mountains. Although it sounds disgusting, many children told us how pleased they were to finally lay eyes on the parasites living in them, because they knew instantly that they were getting better.
We also want to deepen our impact by setting up proper clinics staffed by volunteer medical professionals. That is why we have run free doctors’ visits for people in mountainous parts of Liangshan since our inception in 2014. When we started, it was the first time many villagers had ever seen a qualified doctor. Locals thronged our volunteers asking to treat all manner of conditions, while we also gave children checkups and taught local teachers emergency first aid.
The most challenging part of our doctors’ visits is finding volunteers who are willing to give up a week or two of their vacation in order to participate. These volunteer doctors spend their time off traipsing across mountains and rivers. When they get to their destinations, they then have to get down to work.
One of our best-loved volunteers is Wang Qin, a doctor from northern China’s Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. I remember Wang saying at first that he was worried about adapting to the working conditions of the region, with its poor roads and rudimentary facilities. But as soon as he entered a village or a classroom and saw the children there, he forgot all these challenges and instantly transformed into a natural leader. Locals loved him, and he has come back on other trips since — luckily for us, because Rainbow-Bridges’ limited publicity expertise means that finding enough doctors is always an uncertainty.
Most Chinese people only ever see the rugged, desolate mountain landscapes of Sichuan and Qinghai in the media. Images of local people on our screens sometimes inspire sympathy, but few viewers see any way they can help. Our doctors’ visits program hopes to fix this. These days, we are usually able to recruit 10 or so doctors each semester, whom we send to the abovementioned two provinces to examine the local children, fix their teeth, and teach them about basic health care and sanitation.
Thanks to the hard work of our volunteers, our two main projects — medical supplies and doctors’ visits — now take place in more schools than ever before and have helped more than 5,000 students to date. We’re working on other projects, too: Currently, Rainbow-Bridges is soliciting donations to screen the region’s children for congenital heart disease, for example.
As part of the national government’s poverty alleviation campaign, rural medical cooperatives are expanding their reach, and new basic infrastructure is making previously isolated places like Liangshan more accessible. Of course, it often remains difficult for residents in these areas to get to the nearest county-level town for medical care. Local medical and sanitary facilities are unlikely to improve to the levels we see in China’s cities.
But we can fix the little things. By cultivating good sanitary habits, providing basic medicines, teaching first aid, and drawing up attainable goals for rural medical care, we can help those who fall through the cracks in China’s medical system. If we can reduce the suffering of sick children and help make them healthier and happier, then all the work of our volunteer doctors and support staff will have been worth it.
Translator: Kilian O’Donnell; editors: Lu Hua and Matthew Walsh.
(Header image: A child receives a transfusion at a village in Zhijin County, Guizhou province, Feb. 9, 2010. Peng Nian/VCG)