Surgicorps International – A Dozen Years Providing Care to the People of Bhutan By Merelise O’Connor, 2018 Volunteer
Aside from the serious business of screening 98 new patients to evaluate how the doctors might be able to help them, there is the excitement of reunion in the air as well. Doctors and volunteers look forward to seeing the progress of former patients returning for additional treatment. The Surgicorps medical team looks forward to seeing the Bhutanese hospital staff and the guides and translators who work so closely to make the 10-day mission a success.
In 2018, Surgicorps treated 59 patients with conditions such as cleft lips and palates, burn scars, injuries from bear maulings and other afflictions. Some of these conditions are worse for having gone untreated for years and even decades. There is no practicing plastic surgeon in the Kingdom of Bhutan.
Sonam is 6 years old now, finishing first grade and playing hard with other kids at school. He lives with his family 2 days from the hospital by bus journey. He is a loveable, personable boy who suffered terrible burns on his upper posterior legs when he was just 4. Sonam, his sister Pema and his mom Tshering have become friends of the SI team, because they are lovely and because we have seen so much of them at the Paro Hospital. See Surgicorps 2016 blog post: https://surgicorps.org/2017/01/11/a-mothers-fierce-love-bhutan-surgicorps-2016/
Dr. Jack Demos has performed procedures on Sonam three times now, releasing scar contracture and removing scar tissue so that he can straighten his legs and regain mobility and flexibility. Just before the surgery this year, he was kicking a soccer ball around in the waiting area, a happy, active kid.
After this surgery in May 2018, Sonam was observed, bandaged and his leg placed in a splint so he would keep it straight for at least 6 weeks so the skin grafts heal. He remained in the hospital for nearly a week before being carefully loaded into a small cab with his family to start the long trip home.
Oh, and he had a very special visitor – Queen Mother Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck – while he was recovering!!
Lugay’s story is tragic and moving. Lugay went out early one morning about 2 and a half years ago to retrieve firewood and was attacked by a Himalayan black bear. Her cub was nearby. Lugay’s horrific injuries from being bitten and mauled were on his head and face. He was able to kick the bear away and escaped. He ran 10-15 minutes to get home, calling his wife Euden on the way. She met him and immediately took him to the hospital via ambulance. He has had 11 surgeries and spent 9 months at a specialty hospital in India, spending all of his $9,000 savings, which had been intended for a new house.
Lugay has great support in two grown sons who are helping with his farm and a very loving wife. Their genuine affection was apparent, even in Bhutan where people do not typically publically display tenderness for each other.
Doctors were able to improve Lugay’s facial injuries and appearance by remodeling his upper lip and removing a piece of plastic that had been inserted in his nose. He will require additional medical treatment to repair a slit in his lip and Surgicorps would like him to return next year for follow up.
Euden said that her husband was more important than a new house and Lugay said immediately that the work on his face doesn’t have to be perfect, but when he is more functional, he intends to earn enough money again to build her that house.
This is Lugay and Euden a few days post surgery.
Pema Lhamo is a 12 year old who was burned accidently by a big pot of hot water when she was 7 years old. She lives in Thimphu now, but her parents had relocated to Australia for several years to obtain degrees in education. Both are educators and speak English very well. Pema has had three skin grafts already in her young life and Surgicorps was able to provide her with occupational therapy in the form of chest scar remodeling. Pema’s parents will ensure that she is treated and is as comfortable as possible given the extent of the scarring on her chest.
The people of Bhutan are patient, deferential, stoic and unassuming. They are lovely. Most of the folks have so little compared with those of us who live in the US. These patients and their families express deep appreciation that Surgicorps makes an annual “trek” to bring hope and caring medical treatment to improve their lives. It is humbling and moving to be a part of Surgicorps!