Doctors workers give back: Volunteerism in the heart of Borneo
Charity begins at home, as the saying goes. With this in mind, more and more healthcare professionals have been giving back to the underserved and isolated communities in Sabah and Sarawak for the past few years.
MIMS Doctor spoke to the organizer of one of these the charitable endeavours, Dr Ng Swee Choon, a cardiologist in private practice, about the medical camps he has been helping to coordinate over the past 4 years (2015 to 2018). These healthcare camps, as Ng calls them, are open to healthcare professionals on a voluntary basis. Of course, he does pitch the idea to some of his colleagues and peers, but no one is compelled to join. In fact, Ng said the idea of going into the jungles to offer health services can be appealing, especially to the younger generation. Perhaps it is the romanticized idea of adventure growing up with Indiana Jones or Lara Croft as role models or it could be the genuine wish to give back to society. Either way, the fringe communities get to benefit from this effort.
In fact, Ng is just back from the most recent medical camp which targeted communities living around Tenom, Sabah. This time they were joined by the Ministry of Health of Sabah, members of Medical Practitioners Coalition Association of Malaysia (MPCAM), Kemabong Health Clinic and the Tenom parliamentary representative. This was the twelfth camp in total, and the sixth in Sabah. The first camp was in Sarawak, outside the Sibu area. Overall, Ng has been organizing about three camps a year. This recent Camp saw the participation and contribution of the Sabah Land Rover 4x4 Club (SLRC). Together they provided healthcare to the villages, Kampung Kolorok, Kampung Sumambu and Kampung Tilis.
A regular camp takes 5 days—1 day to travel to the destination kampong and sleep over. Medical services start the next day at 9 am. The camp is till 3 pm (9am to 3 pm) so that the volunteers can pack up and head to the next village by night fall. Ng said: “The sun goes down earlier in East Malaysia, by 6 pm. Many of these places have no power supply at night.
The initial 10 camps were carried out in partnership with the Federation of Private Medical Practitioners’ Associations, Malaysia (FPMPAM), while the most recent two camps were supported by MPCAM. This year, FPMPAM decided to focus their efforts on communities in the Peninsular., while Dr Ng chose to further his efforts in East Malaysia.
Through the last 4 years, Ng said that he has learned many lessons. For example, specialists have minimal usefulness as they have limited on-site surgical backup. “We did bring in ophthalmologist and gynaecologists in our initial camps and learned that the ophthalmologists were functioning more like opticians and even cataract surgery was a great challenge to organize.” Even gynaecologists had limited usefulness. Dentist however were greatly needed. “Have you ever seen 2 dentists working from 9 am to 3 pm, extracting 100 teeth?” asked Ng. The core of these health camps were diagnostic screening and GP checks. Eye checks were popular and giving away free reading glasses proved a hit.
Fast forward to today and Ng has become a seasoned ‘medical camper.’ The most recent team he assembled now consisted of 16 persons who were divided into four stations—one for basic health screening for non-communicable and parasitic infections; one for oral hygiene and dental screening. one for eye testing and finally another station for dispensing of medication. The drugs are bought from small donations raised for each camp. This setup allows the kampong folks to benefit from the medical team’s short duration of stay.
The Malaysian Dream
The medical outreach camps are fully apolitical, stressed Ng. “We don’t want to be seen pushing any particular political agenda, except to look after the sick and needy. To provide basic healthcare to those living in isolated communities.” However, due to the problems stemming from logistics, communication with the local communities and lodging, Ng engaged the help of Impian Malaysia, which happens to be the brainchild of Democratic Action Party (DAP). Impian’s network of connections helped to get the medical team to the destination communities.
“In view of our apolitical nature, although we were monitored by the PDRM Special Branch at certain camps, they did not kacau us,” said Ng. With the result of the recent general election, talks are under way to get the Sabah state’s Department of Health to take over the medical camps. Whilst discussions can take a long time to come to fruition, Ng is already planning for the next medical camp. He said: “We can’t simply sit around and wait for a decision to be made.”
Chatting with Ng, one gets the impression that reaching out to people in deep Sabah and Sarawak was really a good outreach and that it is something the young doctors should take on. Even serving the orang asli people in deep Peninsular Malaya, is also good. It gives the doctors a much ’softer‘ image, helping to dispel the image of the doctors as being always ’money minded‘ and not caring enough for the poor.
Dr Ng remembers that when he first started doing these Camps in 2015, there were probably about four to five teams doing these camps. This year, the number has multiplied and the MOH is trying to see how to harness these camps to be a part of the Ministry’s outreach to the deep areas of Malaysia. Any doctors who wish to help in any of these Camps, can contact Ng at email@example.com. “Good, caring doctors are always welcomed,” said Ng.