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A welcome break from Western medicine

October 2008

Published in the October 2008 issue of Today’s Hospitalist

THIS PAST SUMMER, when much of the world was focused on China’s role as host of the summer Olympics, Wendy Tong, MD, spent several days in some of the most poverty-stricken areas of rural China educating village health care workers, women and children. Dr. Tong is the hospitalist program director at Whidbey General Hospital in Coupeville, Wash., and a veteran of many international medical efforts in countries as diverse as Sri Lanka, Guatemala and the Bahamas.

Dr. Tong grew up in Hong Kong, received her medical training in the U.S. and maintains close ties to China. (This was her second visit within six months.) Despite her familiarity with the culture and language, she admits that working in villages requires a completely new perspective. “Village health care is low tech vs. what we are used to in the United States,” she explains. “You’re trying to reach a community as opposed to treating a specific disease in an individual.”

Dr. Tong is a consultant for a non-profit organization called Living Knowledge, a group of Hong Kong educators who target teachers in rural China. Her most recent visit took her to Gansu province, where the poverty is so severe that residents still live in caves and many have no running water. During her time there, she addressed issues of mass casualty disaster response (Gansu is near the Sichuan earthquake area), women’s health and domestic violence. She also conducted free consultations for individual village women.

While her sponsoring organization had asked Dr. Tong to provide additional information on obstetrics and pediatric nutrition, she felt that these topics were beyond her area of expertise. For the most part, however, “when I volunteer, I’m the visitor,” she says, “so I respect their requests.”

Dr. Tong hopes to conduct mass casualty disaster training in Sichuan next year. That raises another challenge: being able to take off from her full-time job and from graduate school. But she fully intends to find the time.

“Humanitarian work in that part of the world,” she says, “provides a nice break from Western medicine.