You wake one day, both your children are in college, your black hair is silver and your fledgline Tibetan health care project is 20 years old
This summer we celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Surmang Dharma Sagara Clinic.
It was 1992 and I though, "who would ever give us money if we don't have permission from the Chinese Government to build in Tibet? What started out as a dream became a contract with the Qinghai Government, with the help of Gov. Huang Jing Bo. Not so long after we signed the contract we got the construction funds -- our only big grant. We broke ground in '93, and completed the work in the summer of '96. There have been 20 brutal East Tibetan winters in between, and and devastating earthquake in 2010 that took down the 400 year-old monastery on whose land we sit. But it didn't scratch the clinic.
And come they did. In the past 10 years alone, over 140,000 patients. Over 150 volunteers. I have to admit that some of the success was driven by naive luck. I was told by several experts in international development and public health that, like Rodney Dangerfield, we'd get no respect if we didn't charge for services. But for the life of me I couldn't figure out how to do that. By looks alone, I couldn't tell the difference betwen a nomad who had 200 horses and one who had 20. The dressed the same and looked the same. The only thing that made sesnse was to charge everyone the same and for me and the foundation to do the work to get the funding elsewhere. So since then we've never charged for services or meds.
We took a place with among the highest maternal mortality rates in the world --3.000/100,00 live births-- down to zero in 2010 and kept there near there ever since.
In '95 when I spoke to the ehad of Mother and Child Health at UNICEF in Beijing, she asked me, "how do you know that anyone will ever come to the clinic?" I asked her, "did you see the movie, "Field of Dreams?" Kevin Kostner's character is told to build a baseball diamond in his Iowa cornfield. "What makes you think they will come to play?" he asks the ghost. "Build the field and they will come," was the answer. That's what I told her. Now she's at Ford Foundation and when I contacted her 20 years later, her first words, on hearing my voice, were, "build the field and they will come."
Wintertime is when the nomadic yak herders return to their winter homes with their families and livestock: yak, horses, goats. The winter quarters are permanent structures in villages with names like Modi, Jerikhe, Rijie. There is a reason why Tibet is called “the land of snows.” As precious as the fragrant wildflower displays are in the short alpine summer, that is how brutal the weather is at 4300 meters (13000’). It will snow heavily and continuously for months with no snowplows. If they are anything, the Tibetans are survivors and there are few among us outsiders who could take winter’s full measure at Surmang.
With the villages full, is the busiest time of the year at the clinic. Phuntsok has told me that some days they will see 300, 400, 500 patients and work from early morning to late into the night. It is difficult to describe the grit of our two doctors, Phuntsok Dongdrup and So Drogha. So I’d like to take the opportunity to salute their efforts. They are local heroes.
They operate one of the few private clinics in Tibet that are focused on mother and child health. Phuntsok has been with Surmang Foundation since 2000. Drogha since 2001. 2016 is his 16th year, Drogha’s 15th. What makes the Surmang Dharma Sagara Clinic unique is the dedication and professionalism of these two Khampa Tibetans. For each and every one of those 15 and 16 years, they have received hands-on training by foreign volunteer doctors who have high renown in their fields. 2016 will be the first year that all 5 volunteer doctors will be returned volunteers.
For our patients, the result has been quality health care and free meds with no questions asked, no bureaucratic hoops for the patients to jump through, with an emphasis on early intervention and local access in a place with few roads, fewer cars and little electricity or phone connectivity. It’s user-friendly health care.
Because our patients can recognize kindness and quality care, 2015 saw over 18,000 patient-visits to our clinic.
In 2015, Surmang Foundation faced challenges from a tightening official environment. We are one of the few international foundations in Tibet. Yet, in the face of these challenges, we were able to be gifted $15,000 in medicines, and another $51,000 in our Annual Appeal. So, like climbing Everest or Meru, the question isn’t so much a question of the environmental dangers, such as weather, crevasses and vertical ascents so much as it is our own preparation, fitness and grit to fulfill our promise. And our own openness. We took a region that had among the highest maternal mortality rates in the world and by 2011 reduced it to zero. And it’s stayed close to there ever since. Infant mortality has declined significantly too. We have that commitment. We have that grit.
The challenges for 2016 are: construction of a water system and a training center. For the first we need $25,000. For the latter $60,000. This is our clinic’s 20th year of operation. Let’s join in the celebration and ensure continued success!
Please join us. Tibetans say “repay kindness with kindness” and this is certainly true with those who contribute to this project. The feeling stays with you.